ONE HAS TO wonder if we Europeans have a particular body count in mind as to when we begin to take substantive notice of slaughter in our back yard and decide to do something about it.
The killing of civilians and individuals determined to win freedom from oppressive regimes in the Arab Spring has taken its most violent turn to date in Syria, and the best the free world can muster is serious condemnation – after protestations of utmost concern and a few blue-hatted peacekeepers to wander into towns after they have been wiped out to take pictures.
So far the Syrian government reckons around 10,500 people have been killed in the uprising, and the rebel forces say 15,500. We can’t say for sure, but we do know that all the nasty stuff that repressive regimes tend to do when they’re clinging on is happening in Syria. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Mass executions. Torture. Sexual violence. Pillaging. All very pedestrian really, by the standards of the backyard wars Europe has been too timid to do anything about in the past twenty years.
It’s not like Europe shouldn’t be able to project its influence – and, if necessary, might – to places like Syria. They’re not faraway fields.
The foreign shores of the Mediterranean are close enough to the EU for determined immigrants to row across to our nearest outcrops in search of a better future for themselves and their families. You can drive on roads that date their ancestry back to Roman times all the way from the capital of that empire to Damascus, Cairo and Tripoli.
Monuments to past indecision
You could take a circuitous route and visit living monuments to past indecision like Sarajevo or Srebrenica in the Balkans. There we re-learned a whole lot of moral lessons on man’s inhumanity to man that should make it possible for Europeans to take a decisive stance against murderers in our midst like Bashar al-Assad.
We usually dither and fret about wars and human rights abuses until the Americans are eventually called in to go sort it out. Even in Libya, where it was supposedly the British and French who led the calls for military intervention, the US had to take on the burden of responsibility. European nations and NATO members began to run out of munitions to drop on Colonel Gaddafi’s forces less than two weeks into the campaign and had to be given loaners by the Americans. The European nations were supposed to mount up to 300 sorties per day, but could manage less than 150.
Of the 28 NATO members who voted for the Libya mission – mostly European, remember – less than half participated and only a third were willing to get directly involved in the shooting war. It was similarly so in past conflicts, most notably in the Yugoslav wars, when the US had to take a lead in a conflict thousands of miles and a giant ocean away from home that had a land border with EU members.
European nations lack both the will and the capability to do anything but talk about our strong commitment to human rights and democracy. We tend to channel our efforts through the United Nations, a body that has become so ineffective as to resemble in more than just a passing way its failed predecessor, the League of Nations.
Drafting letters while soldiers kill children
Through the UN we have well-polished diplomats working tirelessly for weeks to draft acceptable language for a letter of condemnation while scruffy soldiers rape women and kill children. We have to skirt around the sensibilities of the Permanent Members of the Security Council and gaze through a mirror darkly reflecting our values as liberal democracies in the governments of Russia and China.
Ireland is a captive party to this farce. For all the good work we’ve done as peacekeepers on UN missions, this country has also allowed its foreign policy to be dictated by people like Vladimir Putin.
Thanks to the Triple Lock system of Irish neutrality it takes government, Dáil and UN consent for us to take part in any international effort to bring peace to a troubled land. Moscow and Beijing therefore have a veto on our ability to act in conscience.
The European Union, and Ireland as a part of it, should decouple its ability to respond to the Syrian crisis from cynical nations playing geopolitics. We’re supposed to be a continent of people who have learned the hard way about mass murder, and the price of our ability to go to bed in relative security and prosperity at home should be our willingness to stand up for innocents who have no one else to turn to.
There is talk of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria to stop the attacks on civilians from the air and possibly to start a bombing campaign on military forces attacking civilians. As per usual it is Uncle Sam who will have to step up and shoulder the burden for democracy and human decency.
The US won’t be around to fight our battle forever
The US won’t be around in Europe forever to fight battles in our back yards. Their focus and their forces are shifting to the Pacific. European nations need to get serious about being able to field the kind of forces we look to America to provide.
The EU should stop waiting on the UN and take full flight to protect civilians in Syria. We should start to cripple his forces from the air and provide the rebels with the guidance they need to win and to transition to a new regime. Most of all, we should take immediate action to slow and eventually halt the murder of civilians.
Assad should be forced to leave the country and go live out his life in a villa somewhere in Russia or Iran; or face the ignominious end of that other hard man Gaddafi, begging for his life from people he so blatantly threatened to murder.
In future the EU needs to have a determined policy on genocidal wars waged by tyrannical dictators against their own people in within arms reach of home. We profess to abhor them, but time and again we ignore them. We need to draw a line in the sand and say clearly that when this starts happening – as has been happening in Syria for months – we will not tolerate it, and Russia and Iran and China and other paragons of virtue can wear it. Their gas, their oil and their money aren’t indulgences for absolution in the eyes of history or our maker.
Ireland too needs to get off the fence. Our neutrality, biased and all as it has ever been, was designed for a different age. I don’t propose we field a bigger military and go take on Assad in our PC9s, but that we consider the roles we’ve already agreed to in the likes of EU Battle Groups without the shackles imposed by being enthralled to the decrepit and useless body that is the UN.
It would be absolutely right and proper for a nation with a history of struggle and a set of values as we have to take a part, in a fair if even small one, in helping an oppressed people to break their shackles and overcome a murderous regime. If we abhor what we see in Syria, why do we think it is somebody else’s duty to do something about it?