Syrians and their neighbours have suffered enough. We need a new regional architecture to promote a more stable future
Looking beyond the high drama of the past few days, with tense votes in the lobbies of Westminster, and promptly called presidential press conferences on Capitol Hill, in Jordan we daily confront the problems caused by over two years of Syria’s relentless and brutal civil strife.
Chemical weapons or not, millions have been torn from the security of their homes and livelihoods, their last vestiges of dignity trashed and the potential and creativity of an entire nation squandered. We have seen, and continue to see, the endless trudge of a broken people through our northern desert as they seek haven in refugee camps that will inevitably become increasingly squalid and crime-ridden, or among the tenuous stability of already poor and marginalised Jordanian urban communities.
While we condemn absolutely the viciousness and immorality of the use of chemical weapons, at this moment we must also remember that this war has already claimed 110,000 lives and shattered those of millions more. Our traumatised youth will carry the scars forever. Syria has been ripped apart, and without effective international aid, the stability of both Lebanon and Jordan hangs in the balance. The reality of this war is found not in the theatre of high politics, or attention-grabbing headlines in the western press, but in a simple tragic story of human suffering and wasted lives.
As Obama builds his coalition of the willing, to paraphrase the language of previous western interventions, past experience tells us that there can be no winners. Hans Blix has this week logically suggested that whatever evidence emerges from Adra and Ghouta, it must be disseminated, at the very least, among the security council’s big five. But the real evidence of our regional tragedy is already clear, and will endure for generations after the recent chemical attacks. The peoples of our traumatised region are already living with the aftermath of industrialised wars fought with petro-dollar arms forged in foreign factories: depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan; drone attacks; and the repeated past use of chemical munitions. The suffering caused by these faceless weapons is all too apparent to their victims. And I fear we’re doomed to repeat the same, seemingly endless, violent mistakes. I recall the work of Sydney Bailey and the Quakers during the 1970s, who called the region’s belligerent parties together to warn of the horrors of chemical and biological warfare. How little we have learned.
As many in the global south have already commented, if there has been a breach of international law in Syria, the evidence should be brought before the UN, which created the structure that allowed the expression of international horror at chemical weapons in the first place. Without this, we take another step away from the international system that alone should act as the ultimate guarantor of human dignity.
While it is clear that it will be the people of this region who will suffer from any punishment meted out for the crimes of whomsoever or wheresoever, the time is now right to ask who benefits from the instability and waste of an entire region. The words of Eisenhower are perhaps pertinent here:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Sabre-rattling raises the price of oil, and may result in one or two more skyscrapers rising in deserts scarcely able to sustain them environmentally, while conflict and instability adds credence to calls for further military expenditure and securitisation. Likewise, tomahawk missile manufacturers’ share prices rise and fall in tandem with predictions of the probability of a tactical attack on the Assad regime.
How can we break this cycle of violence? Some of us in the region look hopefully towards a Geneva II Middle East peace conference. To be of significance however, such a conference requires that we, in west Asia and north Africa, discard our rivalries in favour of laying the foundations for a regional architecture that could bring real peace through socio-economic development, stability and a renewal of hope and dignity for our region.
As the G20 meet in St Petersburg and inevitably debate our fate, I beg them to grasp an alternative vision to help us build a new system out the ashes of the old. South-south co-operation seems to have been eternally halted by external powers, envious of their influence in our Middle Eastern capitals. But without regional co-operation premised on stability and development, or if we fail to grasp the concept of our collective human and environmental commons, we are condemned to never-ending ethnic, sectarian war, personal tragedies and probable Balkanisation.
Whatever its current failings, the European Union’s greatest achievement has been 50 years of peace in a region previously plagued by endless conflict. Reflecting on this, we too desperately need the institutions that foster an economic and security interdependence that makes conflict so much costlier than working together. Only then can we expect stability for the hinterland of the world’s oil-producing region, and only then can the people of the Middle East live a dignified life, untarnished by endless, grinding war.
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