News Analysis

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Dominic MacSorley: To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war

Published 29/08/2013 | 05:00

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The US, the UK, and France are all now teetering on the brink of a military intervention in Syria, holding to a position that the attack was carried out by the Syrian government, they look ready to react militarily, with or without a UN mandate to ensure that there are no further attacks of this nature.

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Whether such action would be legal is an important question but it is certainly not unprecedented. The NATO air war in Kosovo – which only gained UN Security Council approval after it had been initiated – was undertaken with the justification that it was needed to avert a humanitarian disaster and to protect the civilian population – claims which, it may be argued, apply in Syria today.

But the legality debate seems moot. Video footage of the victims has inflamed public opinion and contributed to a sense that 'something must be done' – the court of public opinion has, it seems, displaced or negated the need to await the findings of the UN weapons inspectors.

Proponents of a military intervention rightly speak of the awful human rights abuses of chemical warfare, insisting that human rights must be upheld and the rules of war be adhered to. But let there be no mistake, we have seen time and again how, in conflict, the law of war is systematically ignored and fails to protect innocent lives. Upholding human rights in Syria is certainly no exception in this regard. Unspeakable atrocities have occurred there long before last week's horrifying attack took the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

This was brought home to me in in Lebanon last month where I met countless families whose lives have been torn apart by this war – loved ones lost, homes destroyed, children traumatised. A few of them still had shrapnel in their bodies. There are millions of people throughout the region relying now on humanitarian assistance for daily survival, waiting for the war to end and not knowing when, or indeed if, they will ever return home.

Let us be very clear: international military intervention will not end what is a very complex civil war. If anything, external military action brings with it a significant risk of prolonging and even broadening a bloody conflict which has already taken a huge toll on innocent civilians.

This would be on top of a situation where humanitarian agencies such as Concern Worldwide are already dealing with high levels of insecurity, poor access to those most in need of assistance and very limited funding.

In a situation where the UN Security Council is divided and therefore powerless, the desire to send a signal that the West will not stand by and tolerate horrific, gross violations of international humanitarian law is very real.

All of this may be important, even justified, but we should not fool ourselves that this is anything more than that. This should not be dressed up as a solution or anything other than a punitive measure.

There are no easy military solutions to this crisis, no silver bullet that will end hostilities, and while I do not believe for a moment that this is a choice that will be taken lightly by anyone, deep consideration must be given to the human consequences of any actions taken now and political leaders on all sides must ensure that the concerns of the people of Syria are put to the forefront of any decision.

Events in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us how difficult and intractable these situations can be, for years civilians in both countries have continued to suffer the consequences of protracted conflict.

If we have learnt anything from our own recent history, military action from an external force on its own rarely brings success. Rather it is inclusivity, bringing all parties, all influencers together – especially those on opposing sides of the conflict – that really counts. In the Syria context, this means broadening the debate outside the narrowness of the UN Security Council members, bringing in the regional players such as Iran, Israel, and Hezbollah. And we need to bring in the UN. The Security Council may be fractured but the UN still has a role and a voice. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN/Arab League special representative on Syria, has appealed for an increase in diplomacy and a strong united front – he is right. Put him front and centre at the negotiations. These are all initiatives that could and should be happening already.

Diplomacy is not dead but the diplomatic voice gets drowned out as the war drums beat louder and military might positions itself. We cannot abandon pressure, diplomacy, or influence. In the end, it is only this that will resolve the crisis in Syria.

Domnic MacSorley is CEO of Concern Worldwide

Irish Independent

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