30 August 2013
Syria is the world’s current international pariah. And the drums of war are beating once more.
The apparently regime sanctioned poison gas attacks on Syrian citizens are despicable, callous and indefensible. They offend all our humanitarian principles. No-one seriously contests that.
The question, though, is what to do about it. International order provides a mechanism through the United Nations and the Security Council for considered, deliberative and globally co-ordinated responses to such outrages. The problem occurs when the UN’s measured approach gives way to paralysis or indecision, or when powerful international member states and their allies become impatient and for wider geopolitical reasons decide they can stand by no longer.
That is what happened with the ill-fated Anglo-American response to Iraq in 2003, which New Zealand prudently stood aside from. It was the right decision then, and would be the right decision today in respect of Syria.
While the major powers seem to be paying diplomatic lip service to the lessons of Iraq and the need for due process, there is the gnawing fear of the inevitability of some form of unilateral military action against Syria. The significant build-up of naval forces in the Mediterranean, and the deployment of British bombers to a Cyprus staging post provide the tell-tale signs.
But while there was a measure of international consensus that the despotic Hussein regime in Iraq had to go, WMDs or not, it is not the same with Syria. There are significant differences within and between the Europeans, for example, meaning any concerted military action against Syria is likely to domestically and internationally divisive and destabilising, especially if it is unsuccessful, and the Assad regime just carries on.
New Zealand is not a military player in these machinations, but it can be a pillar of common sense. We were right over Iraq in 2003. Buoyed by that, we should be in the vanguard of urging diplomatic intervention through the UN and the Arab League, rather than tacitly endorsing the increasing slide to military confrontation.