If Miliband continues to dither on Syria, he may go down in history as Labour’s John Major

According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.

According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.

This in practice assists Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship; freezing in place its military superiority over the poorly armed Free Syrian Army, and enabling the dictatorship better to massacre its own citizens. FSA soldiers, demoralized by their shortage of arms, have been responding by defecting to the relatively well-equipped Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, Iran systematically violates the arms embargo by sending arms to its Syrian ally.

To its credit, David Cameron’s Britain has, along with France, been the member of the Western alliance readiest to push for a change in the latter’s lacklustre Syrian policy. But it has long been frustrated by the reluctance and foot-dragging of Barack Obama – the US’s most conservative president, in foreign affairs, since the first George Bush. Also by its EU partners, especially Germany, which has for years based its foreign policy on friendship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in turn is Assad’s principal foreign ally after Iran.

The fiasco of the West’s policy is reminiscent of the earlier fiasco over Bosnia in 1992-95. Then, the West maintained an arms embargo that worked in favour of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and Radovan Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb rebels. As with Syria today, so over Bosnia then, the justification was that lifting the arms embargo would undermine the pursuit of a negotiated settlement. Britain’s then foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, infamously claimed that it would create a ‘level killing field’.

So the West maintained a killing field that was tilted in favour of Milosevic and Karadzic, and pursued a string of negotiations and peace plans. The result? In July 1995, Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb forces conquered the enclave of Srebrenica, supposedly a UN ‘safe area’, and carried out a genocidal massacre of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.

However, things could have been worse: at least the Labour opposition at the time was not calling for a still more extreme conservative-realist policy, though some Labour ‘left-wingers’ such as Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner were. Now, however, even though the US has apparently come round to the idea of lifting the embargo and German resistance has softened, Labour has joined with the hardline pro-embargo bloc of EU states to help obstruct the policy.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has stated: “For months Labour has expressed real concern about the risks involved in sending British arms to Syria’s opposition forces not least because vital questions about their end-use remain unanswered.”

And: “How would the government prevent British-supplied weapons falling into the wrong hands, and how does supplying weapons help to secure a lasting peace?”

Like Hurd in the 1990s, so Alexander today is concerned less with the vast bloodshed actually being caused by the tyrant and his murderous forces, and more with the possibility of the resistance killing people (in Bosnia, at least 86 per cent of the killing of civilians was committed by Serb forces).

Yet the Bosnian war only came to an end in the autumn of 1995 because the Bosnian defenders and their Croatian allies finally began to inflict military defeats on the Serbs, and because NATO belatedly intervened with serious air-strikes. In Libya in 2011, as in Kosovo in 1999, Western air-power in alliance with the domestic resistance brought a rapid end to the bloodshed – in each case, without the loss of a single Western soldier in combat.

In other words, conciliating murderous regimes and sabotaging the resistance to them only fuels the killing; halting the killing requires supporting the resistance. This lesson can also be drawn from the effects of the NATO summit in Bucharest of April 2008, when Germany and France blocked the granting of a Membership Action Plan to Georgia, in order to appease Moscow.

Then, the silence of Britain’s new prime minister Gordon Brown in the face of this betrayal was deafening. Putin read the signal correctly and invaded Georgia a few months later.

If Ed Miliband continues to follow the sluggish example of his mentor Gordon Brown, he may go down in history as Labour’s John Major.

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11 Responses to “If Miliband continues to dither on Syria, he may go down in history as Labour’s John Major”

  1. RobShorrock

    Well said and an apposite reminder about the effect of dithering. The parallels with the Balkan conflicts of the early 90’s are uncomfortably too similar and the recent wave of sectarian violence in Syria reveals the unpalatable truth of not giving arms to a genuine democratic resistance which must prevail for the the future of Syria.

  2. David Lindsay

    On the principles being advanced, we should have bought the Woolwich murderers their meat cleavers.

    No, it is not in poor taste to say that. It is a fact.

    Those whom we are proposing to arm in Syria, if we are not already doing so, are exactly like the followers of Anjem Choudary, and may very well be – indeed, probably are – the followers of the Syrian, Omar Bakri Muhammad.

  3. Stephen Henderson

    Two points:

    1) It’s great to know a bit of history but if you only know one bit of history i.e. the Bosnian War and you monomaniacally recycle this historical analogy for every situation it gets old. Very quickly… Actually to be fair you do mention the Georgian war too but lose credibility when you (seemingly) attribute it to Gordon Brown not staring down Putin. Really???

    2) Nobody cares about Ed Millibands “Syrian strategy” – except perhaps you? Neither the future history of Syria nor his own biography will mention his or Labours “Syrian strategy” in opposition. Plus even if he had strong convictions it is inconceivable that he could impose them on a Labour party which I’m pretty sure has no consensus for a “Syrian strategy”. You will have to convince the Labour party and the rest of the British public.

  4. Matthew Blott

    John Major won an election.

  5. Ann Feltham - CAAT

    UK governments’ support for tyrants does not begin when there are uprisings against them, but can continue for decades if the tyrants control oil or can be flogged weaponry. The Economist ranks Saudi Arabia 163 out of 167 (the worst) in its index of authoritarian regimes. However, the appalling rights record of the Saudi regime has not prevented it from being the major recipient of UK weaponry with Thatcher, Blair and Cameron all acting as salesperson-in-chief for BAE Systems and its predecessor companies. Such sales give support and legitimacy to the appalling Saudi regime.

  6. humanity

    A little unfair to condemn Ed Milliband for dithering. In Bosnia we had the backdrop of of a confident US and UK alliance, a more united EU and a USSR on the back foot. Today we have a US that is focused on its own self-interest, trying to reduce its expenditure on defence and to withdraw from two wars. “It’s the economy, stupid” could well be a term coined for today’s US president. At the same time, Russia is acting aggressively to preserve the influence it has in this part of the world, having been, in its view, hemmed in over the years. We have to factor in the possibility of a proxy war in the middle east if we choose to arm the Free Syrian Army. Not only this, but the conflict itself could spread further and intensify the involvement of Iran, Turkey and Israel. Add to this the likelihood of arms leaking into the hands of conservative islamist militias, or even jihadist practitioners of terror tactics, and there is good reason not to rush to a decision.

    I can see the neat attraction of the argument which calls for a level fighting field, as there is a real possibility that Assad would negotiate if he felt he might lose militarily. But he has said he will not go without an election and this is what should be worked towards by democratic nations. We should take sanctions against Russia for inflaming the situation and lining its own pockets by selling arms into this bloodied swamp. And if necessary we should contribute troops to a UN force to isolate Syria, preventing all arms traffic, and turning the screw on other items until all parties agree to negotiate.

    Lastly I am a Labour party member, and the more I think this through, the more I agree with Ed Miliband’s position. I also agree that his position is of little relevance in the current situation!

  7. FulanoZutano

    Has anyone noticed the striking resemblance between the ideology of MAH and the demented old warmonger Crackpot McCain? I wonder, if by any chance, they are related…….

  8. maxime1793

    This is worthy of quick dismissal – Imperialist Trash.

  9. Michael Noonan

    A complication to the Syria crisis is that the rebels don’t speak with one voice.
    There is no wider umbrella organisation to connect them, as was the case in
    Libya, and some of them seem to be at ideological war with each other, as much
    as they are at physical war with the Assad regime. So that it is almost
    impossible to predict who would dominate a Post-Assad Syria, and what policies,
    internally and externally, they would pursue. And of course there are fanatical
    Al Qaeda groups, many of them foreigners, who are involved in this conflict, on
    the rebel side. Many commentators now believe that the conflict in Syria is
    part of a much wider conflict in the Arab world; and can be viewed almost as a
    proxy war, between the Sunnis and Shi-ites, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran,
    to determine who will dominate politics in the Arabian Peninsula. Arms and
    material assistance have certainly been flooding in to the rebel forces (along
    with foreign fighters from all around the world), from neighbouring nations,
    which want to see the overthrow of the Assad government and victory for the
    rebels, for wider geopolitical reasons. Rather than arming one side or another,
    we should be working for negotiations between all the parties involved (excluding
    foreigners), to try to resolve this civil war at the negotiating table rather
    than on the battlefield – as we did in Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

  10. Little Richardjohn

    Millipede showed yesterday that he is a plodder. It seems that these days people want a plodder. He was handed it on a plate yesterday. ll he had to do was ask for the surveyor’s report before signing the lease. People can identify with that.
    Cameron came across as the pushy estate agent.

  11. Guest

    Fulano Zutano is a nasty little apologist for Radovan Karadžic and Slobodan Milošević, the last person to be accusing others of being demented warmongers.

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