We cannot create happy endings in the Middle East; but we should do what we can.
Anyone that pays any attention to the news will have been concerned and disheartened by recent events in the Middle East. Libya is threatening to fall apart, Israel is undertaking a pyrrhic struggle against Hamas, Syria has suffered 3 years of horrific attritional civil war spawning ISIS who now threaten the stability, such as it was, of Iraq. If we are going to solve these problems you must understand the root causes of the conflicts and the motives of the actors. However, the most concerning part of this is that it is so hard to understand the root causes of these conflicts, as we’re all so blinded by past events. Everyone has an opinion and these new developments are largely seen as a confirmation of whatever you previously thought. If you objected to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 then it’s obvious that the fledging externally imposed democracy, beset by corruption and sectarian interests largely kept going by Iranian support was going to struggle. The grievances of Sunni majority areas in Northern Iraq where ISIS are currently constructing a new state are just a symptom of this disease created by the original intervention. The destabilisation of Iraq by the 2003 invasion has created a weak state that struggles for legitimacy and authority over all of its territories and created an easy target. This is confirmation that we should never intervene in another sovereign state that poses no threat to us. If you were outraged that there was no military action in Syria against Al-Assad in the form of air strikes against state military targets and arming of moderate rebels then you are not surprised that hard-line rebels, well-funded by states such as Saudi Arabia were able to take the lead. Under equipped moderates were then either attacked by groups like ISIS or subsumed within them, leaving us with a conflict that has split the country between 2 sides, both of whom we would like to lose. Leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians to suffer in the middle. This is confirmation that we must intervene. If you thought the American, British and French governments pushed their UN mandate in Libya too far towards regime change, then you’re not surprised that without the unifying causes of opposing Gaddafi and in the power vacuum that followed competing rebel groups have fought each other for influence and control. All of these decisions are easy to criticise from whatever position you choose to take. However, the reason that they are so easy to criticise is because there are no easy solutions here and there are rarely any obviously correct answers. If Saddam Hussein was still in charge of Iraq are we to assume that he would have acted any differently to Bashar Al-Assad in Syria when faced with the Arab Spring? According to Iraq Body Count there were 127,155 – 142,240 documented civilian deaths from violence following the 2003 invasion. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights believe that more than 115,000 have been killed in Syria since 2011. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Syria will overtake Iraq at some point. In Iraq there was Western involvement and huge numbers of people died, in Syria the West stood by and huge numbers of people have died. Catastrophes can occur with or without our involvement. In fact we often kid ourselves as to how much our views and actions matter. This is the big issue. We still see our role in the world as the solver of problems, but is this really realistic? Baroness Warsi resigned from the Government in protest at the policies towards Israel but what exactly did she want them to do? If the Government condemned Israel each and every time a civilian died this might make some people feel better but it won’t change anything. We can ask Israel to stop, and point out how self-defeating some of their policies have been but realistically it is not possible for us to solve this conflict. No matter what we do we cannot create happy endings out of nothing. If there are happy endings to be found they are invariably discovered by the parties of the conflict rather than being externally imposed. These issues are terribly complicated, confusing and challenging to solve. Does this mean however that we should always do nothing and sit on the sidelines? I would say no. We need to change the debate and our foreign policy when facing conflict should be rethought to have very narrow aims, entirely based on the presumption of action to protect innocents while accepting what is and isn’t achievable. We should not aim to solve these problems, but to stop actions that are obviously wrong when it is in our power to do so. We were right to bomb the Libyan army as it advanced on Benghazi in 2011, it undoubtedly stopped many thousands of innocents being killed. Gaddafi announced that his army would go from house to house cleansing them from what he referred to as the rats and cockroaches. If people rise up against brutal dictators we should, if we can, stop them being slaughtered, especially those who are not party to it but are just in the wrong place. Even if the aftermath in Libya is ultimately worse than the previous dictatorship, and it still could be, we have undoubtedly done a good thing. This may have turned the tide against Gaddafi and created an opportunity for a better future, but it is up to the people of Libya to seize it. If Libya ends up a failed state, it will not be because we helped to avoid intentional state sponsored massacre in Benghazi. We live in an era where Britain and her allies have unquestioned military superiority over many of these states which can be used to protect people in some instances without the need to risk soldiers. We cannot allow ISIS to chase non-Muslims into mountains without food water or shelter and we are right to try and stop it. Syria is unfortunately different. They have much better air defences, increasing the risks of any strikes and where battles are taking place in towns it is hard to strike surgically without unnecessarily risking the civilians we should be trying to protect. This both makes it clear that it would be hard for us to improve the situation and underlines the next to act swiftly in future. It is easy to get carried away and easy to forget our responsibilities so we must have a doctrine in place and when conditions are met the Government should feel comfortable with acting in accordance with it. This would allow us to act fast and within the agreed boundaries. We should no longer expect ourselves to be able to solve these terrible conflicts, however we must expect ourselves to do good wherever it is possible and practicable. It is not possible to solve all of these problems but it is also wrong for us to let ourselves stand aside. We should always do what we can.