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Better the devil you know

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, has become a key battleground in the country’s protracted civil war as bombings continue day and night.

Bombings continue in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, which has become a key battleground in the country’s protracted civil war.

It begins to look as if the dreadful Assad may yet go on to win the Syrian civil war. Why is this? The quagmire which is Syria is about as complicated as ever it gets in politics and religion, and with the latter playing the dominant part I will not attempt to explain – even if I were up to it – all the competing factors at work in that benighted area. Suffice it to say that it was and is a devil’s brew which we were wise not to get drawn into, even though our prime minister was up for it. Parliament said no and that was the end of it.

It was this vote, I believe, which saved an always-cagey Obama from being swept into the affair and commencing air strikes. Incautiously (if he never meant what he said) he spoke of ‘Red Lines’. Luckily the Commons vote caused Congress to take stock. It values its British ally’s diplomatic cover around the world as it demonstrates that it is not a bully acting alone in the world; there are two of us. This cover it considers more important than its military contribution, welcome as that nevertheless is. They are not anxious to stand alone nowadays and feel much more comfortable when their old mate is there to take its share (if needs be) of the flak. Although France indicated that it would join them – perhaps anxious to lay President George W. Bush’s “Surrender Monkeys” insult from the Iraq war to rest – it was not the same as having reliable old Blighty. You could at least go into a huddle with him and talk to him in your own lingo.

Would that intervention have changed things on the ground and stopped Assad gaining the upper hand as he has now? I believe not. So long as Hezbollah – the bain of Israel – was willing to throw its considerable military weight behind Assad and as long as Iran kept training its operatives and providing them with hardware and the Russians replacing Assad’s equipment losses there was never going to be an easy or quick solution. And even if the West – assuming it had begun bombing – then proceeded to up the ante to the point where Assad could take no more, what then?

Were we going to allow a fragmented, at-each-other’s-throats band of brothers with no clear agenda of what to do with their newly liberated country take control? I think not. Especially when their ranks had been hugely swollen by fanatical Jihadists, many of them affiliated to Al Qaeda.

All of this now brings us to the most cynical piece of realpolitik since America armed Saddam Hussein to help him stave off defeat by Iran during the Iraq-Iran war during the early ’80s. Have you noticed that government pronouncements, and even media reporting on the Syrian civil war, have gone strangely quiet compared with what it was – and this despite the horrendous losses now put at over 150,000 dead?

It is my belief that, so worried is the West as to who would take over in the event of the fall of Assad, it has decided that the ‘man of blood’ who gassed hundreds of his own people is now preferable to those who would take over and plunge Syria – the cockpit of the Arab world – into even an even greater mess than that which the former London dentist, Assad, has plunged it into.

The nightmare which the West’s security forces face in a pivotal land – one which hates and shares a common border with Israel – is a country that becomes a hotbed of fanatical Jihadists with perhaps Al Qaeda taking the lead. Because of these terrible concerns I fear we are now willing – even preferring – Assad to consolidate his recent considerable gains and go on to win the civil war.

It seems almost inconceivable that a man we have so recently labeled a war criminal and threatened to send to the International Criminal Court at The Haguemay now be let off the hook. ‘Better the devil you know’ now seems to go the thinking. An ordered Syria – even one soaked in innocent blood – is now held to be a better solution than one defying a solution.

So get ready, all of us! Assad may yet triumph against a divided opposition and a befuddled, humiliated West may feel its only course is to settle down to a business as usual arrangement. Given the passage of time, and bearing in mind his own and his wife’s former London connections, the Syrian despot might even be asked, like the executed Romanian dictator, to pay a state visit to London and sup with her Maj.

So here, in a nutshell, is the world we are compelled to live in: a complicated, compromised, infinitely bewildering world in which there are few easy answers nor many quick fixes and certainly no ethical foreign policy such as the late, naïve foreign secretary, Robin Cook, thought he could operate.

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The mad dog

As President Reagan once noted, there was always something of the ‘mad dog’ about Libya’s deposed despot. He entertained the most grandiose of illusions, prancing about as he did in his Gilbert and Sullivan uniforms. He imagined he could unify all Africa under his benign rule (before that it was the entire Arab world). He couldn’t understand why Egypt’s then ruler, Nasser, didn’t want to make a start by unifying their two countries. Using his country’s vast oil wealth, he sought to enlist (buy) all the friends he could instead of spreading it around his tiny, impoverished population. Many succumbed, including, to our eternal shame, our own Tony Blair.

Gadaffi was evil beyond belief. Once, when 1,200 prisoners in one of his many squalid gaols protested their conditions, he had them all murdered. He had no qualms about blowing people out of the skies nor bombing them in nightclubs. He was quartermaster of the IRA, sending them shipments of deadly ordnance to help them maximise the number they could kill; Semtex, arguably the deadliest of all explosives, helped mightily in those endeavours. He was prepared to kill an unarmed police woman in broad daylight on the streets of London along with opponents of his regime. All around the world he made himself available to sow terror and death. So crazed did he become that one by one his bought ‘friends’ distanced themselves from him. Even his fellow Muslims and the Arab League concluded that it did their cause no good to be seen to be associated with him, and this is what made it possible for the very first time to get the Arab League onside and stop that Bengazi massacre. At one of the meetings of the Arab League, he insulted the King of Saudi Arabia to the point that even that long-suffering, mild mannered autocrat, gave him a mouthful and walked out. Eventually, without anyone left to listen to his barmy, rambling discourses he was prevailed on by his Western educated sons, principally Saif, to come in from the cold by announcing that he had seen the light and would no more sponsor terrorism. He also grandly announced that he was no longer intent on assembling an atomic bomb.

Our own Prime Minister, Tony Blair (eyes a twinkle at the thought of the juicy contracts on offer), rushed into the tyrant’s spooky embrace – literally. Gone, it appears, were all thoughts of what this man had done to Blair’s (our) country and indeed the world. And now that Gadaffi’s own people can take no more of him – 42 years is an awfully long time – what are Tony’s excuses? “Well, I stopped his nuclear programme, didn’t I? Think what he could have done with that.” Come on, Tony, liberator of oppressed people everywhere. You know perfectly well that an atom bomb was decades over the horizon for Libya. If 70m people in Iran are struggling to the extent that they are, what chance have a desert people of 6m? Gadaffi would have long since died of natural causes before his eyes streamed tears of joy at that magic mushroom cloud rising over the Sahara.

Gadaffi’s capture alive would be much better than dead: he would be denied the chance to don the martyr’s crown; rather he would add to the other sadist leaders who have been arraigned at humanity’s court of ultimate justice. We would have the chance to catalogue at least some of his numberless crimes. Little by little, as the tyrants are made to answer for their abuses of their fellow man, we will have built up a body of case law and strengthened the International Criminal Court. The message will surely go out and be understood that the days of sovereign immunity whereby you can murder your own people at will are over. Tyrants everywhere beware!

So far as the prospects in post-Gadaffi Libya and all the peoples of liberated North Africa, I am not so gloomy as other pundits. Yet I know there is the potential for things to go badly wrong; decades of personalised rule by despots do not bequeath enlightened, functioning institutions. And Libya is awash with guns. Let them all be collected up and shipped to Syria’s hard-pressed heroes. Of course it will be hard, but they are determined. They have seen what tyranny brings. They are young and they are better educated than their parents. They are also internet savvy: they have seen the jobless wasteland their cruel and venal oppressors have created. Through TV they can see how much better are the lives just across the Mediterranean. In interviews and via their tweets they are at pains to tells us we have nothing to fear. But perhaps they do not realise the perils ahead (a little naive, perhaps)? Let us at least do all in our power to ease their passage to a better life, and let them know we have no designs on them beyond wishing them happiness and success. God knows, after their astonishing bravery they deserve that!

If we can play our part in helping to create prosperous and stable societies in what might be called our own backyard, think what that can do for our own struggling industries. 300m new consumers, willing and wanting – and now at last able – to buy our goods and services. Enlightened self-interest it may be called. Designed, not just to make a better world, but to lift our own spirits. Then there is the no-small-matter of Christian/Islamic relations. Imagine how prosperity, open, friendly and democratic societies will take the sting out of the Jihadists. What a prize! At that point, Israel’s own fears would be allayed and we would almost certainly have the comprehensive middle east settlement that has eluded us all this time. It would also go a long way to healing Europe’s own troubled relationship with its Muslim minority. We might even become friends.

Welcome to my blog!

I appreciate that in today’s world it is important to get connected. Moreover it is truly wonderful to be able to share thoughts, not just with your own people, but with people across the entire planet. And at this time my thoughts – apart from wondering anxiously how my tome will be received – are with the struggling, heroic people of the Islamic world. Despite everything I am optimistic. History is on their side. They have had enough of tyrants who behave as though their country is their private property. They have had enough of the tyrants’ families obscenely siphoning off the limited wealth of their lands to feather their own nasty little nests. And they have certainly had enough of the murderous cruelties which they have inflicted on their own peoples.

They see the West, and while cherishing their own faith, wish for the freedoms and the vastly better life opportunities which its tolerant and open society offers. Of course, it is natural that the West should fear a lurch into Islamic extremism, but my hopes rest with the better educated young people. They form a majority bloc throughout the Islamic world, and above all they want jobs and the opportunities which these will bring. Thanks to the twin innovations of the mobile phone and the internet they are all in touch with one another and with us. Their oppressors can no longer hide things, nor shut them up. And they know stuff. They will not willingly exchange the miseries they and their parents have endured for so long only for a fresh set of miseries from new despots or a set of mad mullahs. All power, I say, to their elbows. They want what we have. And why not?

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