Syria demands realism, not moralism

 ‘Civil war is the worst kind of war there is. People who just lived side by side together up until then turn things into a battleground.’ I often heard my mother say this. I suspect that she gained this wisdom from the reports that must have reached her between 1936 and 1939 about the Spanish Civil War. In recent decades we have seen how ‘the worst’ can turn out: Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and now Syria.

‘The worst’ unleashes a great deal, obviously there, but also here. People feel connected and can empathise. They want to do something. For the most part politicians can be found who want to honour this urge to action and put the case for what is called ‘humanitarian intervention’, which is generally a euphemism for war. The fact that other motives - raw materials, influence in the region, geopolitical interests, military bases, prestige, distraction from domestic matters -  often play a role is invariably hushed up.

Whenever a country, a group of countries, or the international community as a whole looks to intervene in domestic or regional conflicts, the approach should be characterised by modesty, caution and reserve, certainly if what is planned is the application of violence. The danger that the cure will prove worse than the disease is always present, always enormous.  The way things unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated this once again.

‘But the disease is so terrible,’ many will say. How can we adopt an attitude of modesty, caution and reserve in the face of so much suffering? The question here is, however, not only one of morality, it is above all one of effectiveness. Those who pose this question and look only to their moral motivation can in the end discover that they that they have in fact acted immorally. And the people for whom it was all started can find themselves much worse off than when things were done, indeed, with modesty, caution and reserve. Morality becomes cynicism when one’s own ‘good conscience’ is thought more important than the reality of the lives of one’s fellow human beings. Moral politics without the filter of Realpolitik is deadly dangerous.

What is it that makes many politicians nevertheless think that a society can be transformed when what we’re dealing with are exceptionally complicated, heavily historically burdened conflicts elsewhere in the world, while this belief in the extent to which things can be changed by political action is patently not present when it comes to the relatively simple questions facing them at the local or national level?  The situation in Syria is one which is extremely complicated.  Of course, we can’t and don’t wish to identify with President Assad, but also most certainly not with the biggest groups within the armed opposition. That’s why the imposition of an arms embargo was a good move on the part of the EU, and why it’s irresponsible for people to want to put an end to this on 1st August. Can it be a coincidence that the biggest organiser of arms supplies to the opposition is the former colonial power in the region which we now call Syria?

Jan Marijnissen is the former leader of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands and remains active in the party. This column first appeared in the original Dutch in the Dutch national newspaper NRC, on 5th June, 2013.