.I’m relieved by the decision of our Parliament not to intervene in Syria. Of course I’m appalled by the gas attack of which we saw the terrible pictures, and I want every reasonable thing done to hinder anyone in Syria taking such actions. But I’m not sure that military action on our part is a ‘reasonable thing’; indeed I’m almost certain that it’s an unreasonable thing in the current circumstances.
Part of my concern is just how practical military intervention can be; as seen in my student days in the Vietnam war, and more recently in Iraq, civil wars are notoriously difficult even to work out properly who is on whose side and to be sure what and where your targets are. They’re also not entirely suitable for superpower style weapons wielded by outsiders; one of the horrendous statistics of Vietnam was that US helicopter ‘gunships’ could be firing off a million or so bullets per confirmed kill; and the victim might still not be Vietcong but a person actually on the US side or just a peasant trying to get through the war alive. Yes, modern drones and ‘smart bombs’ can minimise what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’; but neither the bombs nor our intelligence are infallible, and it only needs one misplaced bomb or one failure of intelligence about targets and we could easily be guilty of atrocity as great as the gas attack we’re protesting against. Is that risk acceptable, especially as it could also compromise our authority in dealing with the issues in a non-military way?
My other concern is one I’ve mentioned before which has been affecting almost all our interventions in Muslim states. We are a ‘Christian country’ whose head of state is also the head of the state Church, and that means that any intervention by us in Muslim countries is open to all kinds of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misrepresentations, on our side as well as whoever we’re opposing. One of the biggest of these misunderstandings is the notion that our army in a Muslim state is necessarily a ‘Crusading’ anti-Muslim army, even though we ourselves may think we’re defending Muslims; this not only makes the conflict intractable, it also endangers native Christians in states throughout the Muslim world, who have often been persecuted, officially and unofficially, as supposed allies of the ‘crusaders’. As one who believes Christians shouldn’t be having ‘Christian countries’ anyway, I see this as extra tragic. America is also perceived by Muslims as a Christian state, and despite its lack of a formally established church like our Anglicans it pretty much is such a state in practice, especially among the so-called ‘religious Right’ of their politics.
Our democracy also presents a problem to Muslims, especially to the fundamentalists who seek very emphatically Muslim states rather than our kind of pluralism. Trying to impose democracy on a culture that really isn’t ready for it is another factor making things intractable.
We just about got away with Gulf War 1, the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq, because we went in invited by Arab states, did the job they wanted us to do, and got out, resisting the temptation to go further and topple Saddam. Even so the mere presence of ‘infidel’ troops on the ‘sacred’ land of Saudi Arabia was a major factor in radicalising Bin Laden and leading to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack. Gulf War 2 and our continued presence in Afghanistan long after its original purpose had departed with Bin Laden himself was for many Arabs a different matter, as we were then intervening on our own behalf and seen as trying to impose anti-Muslim ways on these states.
We ourselves made a major mistake in the invasion of Iraq; though sold in the West as part of the ‘War on Terror’, Saddam was not a supporter of Al Qaida; he belonged to the other major Muslim faction to Bin Laden, and though he attempted to ‘play the Muslim card’ to get Arab support was anyway unacceptably theologically liberal and secular in Al Qaida’s eyes. Toppling him actually, if anything, benefited the extremists and fundamentalists whose struggle to take over after Saddam is perpetuating conflict and death and mayhem under and against our occupation. We may well be making a similar mistake in Syria; Assad likewise belongs to a faction opposed by Al Qaida, who are part of the loose coalition fighting to oust him. How can we fight Assad without risking helping our extremist enemies in the internal Islamic conflicts?
It is being suggested that we are somehow diminished, and ‘losing authority’ by not taking military action at this point. I think we would have been more truly diminished had we carried on along the simplistic route of posturing, waving big sticks and bossing people around in a situation which we don’t understand and which our existing interventions haven’t helped much if at all. And when I say ‘our interventions’ that isn’t just the recent efforts; much of the problems in the Middle East, and the growth of extremism in Islam, goes back to our manipulation of these lands and peoples in colonialist times, including our support for Zionism in Israel (another very messy can of worms which most westerners don’t understand as much as we think we do….).
We need to put our own affairs in order before intervening dubiously in Muslim lands; and that includes a need to finally recognise that Christianity was never intended to be a state religion, and so remove that factor from this and other conflicts (among others, Ireland). Agreed as a plural secular state we’d still be the enemy for many Muslims; but Christianity being itself and demonstrating a better pattern for ‘religion-and-state’ is a better answer to Muslim religious totalitarianism, while retaining the rags of a dubiously Christian past both provokes the Muslims and causes us misunderstandings as well. At present in Syria we have most to offer by not intervening militarily.