Friday, 10 February 2012


There was a delicious moment on the Today programme last week when Evan Davies was discussing the recent UN Security Council meeting with a US State Department representative. They were considering the Russian and Chinese veto of a resolution on the Syrian government's actions against its civilians and Davies asked if the USA would ever consider using its veto in support of a Middle Eastern ally against all other countries. The State Department spokesman failed to answer the question and Davies put it again several times, eventually giving up. It was highly amusing and very illuminating.

It demonstrated rather eloquently that the Middle East region is fraught with difficulties and any attempt to intervene there will end in tears. Libya is in Africa and it is sufficiently remote from the flashpoints of the region to have made the UK and French action containable and manageable, with positive outcomes. By contrast, both Syria and Iran are closely linked to factions within Lebanon and Palestine. Part of Syria has also been occupied by Israel since 1967, creating a potentially explosive flashpoint there in the event of a major conflict within Syria. It's very easy for the Melanie Phillips' of the world to demand action but I am reassured that so far governments have kept their response to words and condemnation, not actions.

Instead of condemning Russia and China for, er, doing what the USA has done countless times for Israel, let's pray for realpolitik to rear its hideous, ugly head and for the many countries potentially involved in the region to work together to find a solution. The Syrian government action against civilians in Homs is reprehensible and requires a response but rabid commentators the world over must accept that the days of gunboat diplomacy are over. It just won't work.

The other factor with Syria is the complex mix of groups living in that country. The Assads may be seen as reprehensible but they have protected minority Christian groups for decades, one of the few countris in the region where this has happened. Robert Fisk has reported stories of masacres of minorities in Homs so, like Bosnia-Herzegovina before, this is not a clear-cut 'goodies v. baddies' issue.

The solution for Syria is going to be infinitely more complex and requires international cooperation. Similarly, Iran is not intrinsically evil, just in the hands of a few fanatics. Intelligent diplomacy could reap huge rewards in Iran. Israeli warplanes will not.

The Arab League appears to have woken up and the role of next door Turkey remains intriguing. Europe and the USA need to pause and reflect on the consequences of any actions, something which the UK and USA singularly failed to do when planning to invade Iraq. Once upon a time diplomats used to think decades ahead to what a country or region would look like then. Now, the news and political agendas make that kind of long term strategic thinking impossible.

They may not be democratic regimes but perhaps the input of Russia and China in this instance could contribute to a more long term vision for the whole of the Middle East, an areas whose citizens have rather ably shown over the past year that, given the right support, they can do it for themselves.

It's ugly and not what the 'democrats' of America want to hear but we should give one cheer for realpolitik

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