Ten years ago, in a Cambridge Union debate on the subject of the Middle East, I remember asking the Syrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom about the Hama Massacre, where in February 1982 the Syrian Army slaughtered tens of thousands of its own people in a town which had revolted against the Assad regime. The Ambassador was a highly articulate and jovial debater and our exchange was in good spirits even though we were on opposing sides. But his answer to my question, delivered gently and with a smile, always stayed with me. He did not seek to deny that the Massacre had occurred. Nor did he seek to find any basis to justify it. He simply said to the chamber: “This is none of your business.” This short answer revealed the insularity and privacy which tyrannical regimes assume. Their first thought is not to justification but to jurisdiction: there is no need to account, only to assert the exclusive right to determine what happens in their territory.
It is through such logic that the present slaughter in Syria continues. Nothing is clearer than that the Assad regime is oblivious to what the “International Community” want or think. After days of diplomatic manoeuvres, Baroness Amos may secure a limited passage for aid agencies but, welcome though that is, their job will be to apply salve to gaping wounds. The shells will continue to be fired. Similarly, William Hague’s words are a study in forlorn special pleading as he asserts: “we can agree a wider set of measures and tighten EU sanctions on Syria. Don't underestimate the impact of the cumulative effect that has.” It will have some impact, but not nearly enough to stop the slaughter. Syria will maintain economic cooperation with its allies (China, Russia, Iran) and the regime will ride out the sanctions, as they always do. After all, it’s none of our business.
When will we learn that economic and bureaucratic responses do not halt massacres? Only a military response will do so because it is the sole way in which the regime can be destroyed; the only way in which their firepower can be blunted and made irrelevant; the only way they will realise it is “our business” and come to the negotiating table. This is the obvious conclusion to draw from the recent Libyan conflict. For sure, it was not easy. It was also expensive. But it worked: in preventing the further massacre of Benghazi and in obliterating a fetid regime.
If NATO was prepared to act then, why not now, in Syria? If anything, the case is stronger. The atrocities are as horrific, the death count is equivalent. Moreover, there is a real strategic endgame here. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has long been in Iran’s pockets, funding and supporting numerous terrorist groups over many years (the most famous being Hezbollah and Hamas); it has continually destabilised and interfered in Lebanon (almost certainly having been behind the assassination of its Prime Minister, Rafic Al-Hariri, in 2005); and it has previously acquired chemical and biological weapons capabilities (thankfully destroyed by Israel in 2007 and covered-up as best they could by an embarrassed Syrian regime). The regime’s removal would be nothing but a good thing for the future stability of the Middle East.
Mr Hague says that a military intervention would have to be on a “vastly greater scale” than in Libya. This may or may not be right. For a start, the very fact of intervention would be a major deterrent to the regime continuing its atrocities. It may choose a negotiated ceasefire on realising that Western powers were, after all, going to act. However, even if one accepts that it would be a conflict on a greater scale, why should that change the moral imperative to act? Do our much-vaunted humanitarian principles crumble in the face of an even greater aggressor? If anything, we should be more determined to protect the innocents.
Sometimes it comes down to a point that is far simpler and far bigger than all this. People are dying in their hundreds; brutally and in full view of our television cameras. Do we do the one thing that we know has the best chance of ending this? Or do we not? The West has long been fond of saying “Never Again”: after The Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. If we will not use our military to prevent further slaughter in Syria, those words, “Never Again”, will once more be little more than a hollow retrospective apology for our failure to act.