G8 split on ‘mad’ plan to arm Syrian rebels
The heads of the world’s great powers have gathered in Northern Ireland for the annual G8 summit. Top of the agenda: whether to arm the rebels in Syria’s catastrophic civil war.
This week the UK hosts the annual G8 summit, a gathering of world leaders who meet each summer to set a course for the coming year. This is one of the most powerful gatherings on earth, but this year the meeting in Northern Ireland is overshadowed by a disaster that no one seems able to prevent: Syria’s nightmarish civil war.
Among the G8 powers, Russia is already heavily involved in Syria: it has supplied vital weapons and support to the otherwise isolated Syrian government, led by the dictator Bashar al Assad (his only other major ally is Iran). On the other side, Britain, France and the US have been helping the rebels with ‘non-lethal’ supplies.
Last week, however, the US declared that it would start giving Syria’s rebels what they really want: weapons of war. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is keen to do the same, although the precise extent of this new military support remains unclear.
But this push to arm the rebels has provoked a furious debate in Britain and around the world. The arguments can be grouped into three broad levels. First the rules. US scientists claim to have found evidence that Assad has been using chemical weapons. The US promised serious consequences if he crossed this ‘red line’. Now, many feel it must back up the threat with action.
Critics are not convinced. Russian leader Vladimir Putin says the evidence of chemical weapon use is not strong enough, and many in the West agree. People still bitterly remember the misleading claims about WMDs that justified the disastrous Iraq War.
Then there is an argument about national interest. If Assad wins in Syria, the defeated rebels will be radicalised and angry. Islamist groups, funded by Arab backers, will thrive at the expense of moderate groups who relied on the West for support. The radical jihadis, spreading out through the Middle East, could destabilise the whole region and be a threat to Europe and the US.
On the other hand, many of Syria’s rebels are Islamists already – naturally hostile to the West. Critics like London mayor Boris Johnson say it is ‘madness’ to be ‘pressing weapons into the hands of maniacs.’
Hardest to resolve, perhaps, is the moral argument. Opponents of intervention feel very strongly that what happens in another country is not anyone else’s business. What gives us the right, they ask, to interfere in a war that is not our own? Getting involved in Syria is neo-imperialist arrogance of the worst sort.
But those who want to arm the rebels feel just as strongly, as they watch Assad crush rebel strongholds, killing and maiming his own people without compunction. They are haunted by the words of the philosopher and politician Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’
- Does violence ever make anything better?
- If you saw someone being beaten up in the street, would you intervene? Do the same rules apply to countries and people?
- The US made the use of chemical weapons a ‘red line’ – meaning that if Assad did it, he should expect serious consequences. Imagine you were the US president, observing a foreign war. What, if any, would be your ‘red lines’? Make a short list.
- The history of international interventions (or failures to intervene) is complicated and bloody. Choose one historical example (for example, Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq or Afghanistan). Then prepare and write an essay explaining the lessons to be learnt.
Some People Say...
“If Assad is a monster and the rebels are extremists, let them kill each other!”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I really don’t see why Syria is worth all the fuss!
- Some people would say that preventing injustice is worth any amount of fuss, but regardless of where you stand on that, the debate over interventionism matters a lot.
- Why’s that?
- Because intervening abroad is difficult, dangerous and expensive. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost thousands of American and British lives. They also drain a huge amount of money. One recent study claimed that the combined cost of the wars could reach $75,000 for each household in the US. Think what a family could do with that money!
- No one is talking about sending troops to Syria, are they?
- Not yet, although there is talk of a no-fly-zone. But the arguments over Syria are the same that justify foreign wars.
- G8 summit
- The G8 summit is a meeting for eight countries with the world’s biggest economies. They are not, however, the top eight. China (ranked second), and Brazil (sixth) are excluded. Even so the G8 countries between them account for half of the world’s total wealth.
- Nightmarish civil war
- Both sides in the civil war have been convincingly accused of committing atrocities. Militias supporting the Assad government have slaughtered women and children in cold blood. Some rebels are accused of carrying out sectarian massacres, and one fighter was filmed eating an enemy soldier’s heart.
- Chemical weapons
- Assad is accused of using sarin, a deadly nerve gas that causes vomiting, incontinence, spasms and then death by suffocation.
- In the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, Tony Blair and George Bush claimed that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had built up dangerous stockpiles of WMDs – Weapons of Mass Destruction. This claim was vital in building support for the US-led invasion of the country. To this day, however, no evidence of WMD stockpiles has been found.
- The hands of maniacs
- When Russian troops were occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, the CIA provided weapons to Afghan rebels. Among the rebel groups was a then little-known Islamist group called al Qaeda.
- Critics of intervention note that the two countries most keen to get involved, France and the UK, were the imperial powers who first drew the borders of modern Syria after capturing it from the Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago.