Punishing the innocent: Syria and the politics of symbolism

Simply bombing Damascus or Aleppo to assuage the conscience of the West that they ‘did something’ seems like the worst form of symbolic politics.

It’s not the only sensible thing Matthew Fitzpatrick had to say in an article at The Drum today.

He also argued the appropriate forum for judging (and, should the verdict be guilty, punishing) a war crime such as gassing one’s own people is the International Criminal Court.

It seems to me he’s blindingly right. Any other approach is not only wrong (and dangerous) in terms of process and precedent, but punishes the wrong people. However carefully planned and executed, military strikes would inevitably add to the woes of Syria’s long-suffering population. The argument “but how can we not respond to this terrible crime” therefore falls over at the first hurdle. First do no harm is sometimes a decent rule of thumb in international affairs as well.

In any case, punitive strikes would be action in a vacuum. There’s no structure within Syria capable of capitalising on them, even presuming the right targets were hit. The opposition forces are fragmented, at each other’s throats, and infested with radical jihadis. As Robert Fisk noted yesterday, “Does Obama know he’s fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side?”.

Truth be told, the blusterings coming out of the US, UK and France over recent days have been essentially incoherent. It makes it even more of a pleasure to see a growing group of UK parliamentarians actually doing their job: considering the evidence; thinking about potential consequences; and weighing up the true interests of their country.

For the moment, the heedless rush is faltering. More and more people seem to be recognising that waiting for the report from the UN inspectors mightn’t be a bad idea.

Still, with policy pronouncements (of a sort) being regularly tweeted by the US Ambassador to the UN, confidence in a sensible outcome needs to be carefully rationed.


2 thoughts on “Punishing the innocent: Syria and the politics of symbolism

  1. Wilful blindness must be a necessary precondition to becoming a national politician or Washington “pundit.” These lessons are never learned. Even when the pictures of children killed, maimed and permanently disfigured from our cruise missiles become public, the initiators of this policy will not be able to see how their decisions in any way is related to that result.

    But we must uphold international law. When the “violators” are the “guys” we considered “bad” in the first place, that is. (Serious men always talk like their are in a B Western. That’s how you know they are serious.) No matter what happened during the Dirty War in Argentina, perpetrated by our anti-Communist friends, there was no thought that we had to do anything. And when the Egyptian military uses the iron fist on its own people we don’t even want to stop sending them arms and cash to continue. But we “always knew” that al-Assad was “bad.” And so we have to “do something.”

  2. Apologies for being so slow, DK. I didn’t notice your comment awaiting moderation. Rest easy; having been approved once, any future comments will just slip through automatically.

    Yes, no shortage of cognitive dissonance. It’s as lunatic a period in American foreign policy as I can recall. No mean compliment . . .

    It’ll be interesting to see if someone more serious finally calls enough.

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