Let’s be rational: Syria is not Iraq

Following further evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria and the ratcheting  up of involvement in the crisis by the US, there has developed a trend to refer back to and in some cases draw parallels with Iraq when discussing the crisis in Syria. Drawing such a conclusion is deeply simplistic, and jeopardous for the people of Syria and the surrounding region.

Principal among the very distinct characteristics of the Syrian crisis is the clear and hugely widespread humanitarian crisis which has left thousands of innocents killed, millions internally displaced, and an increasingly large diaspora of refugees leaving the country, many of whom are living without adequate sustenance or shelter. The UN has made unprecedented calls for humanitarian relief funding, appealing for $5 billion to support UNHCR operations in Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Due to the conflict’s absence of any prospect of conclusion, and the long-term post-conflict humanitarian implications of the situation, this cost will inevitably rise in the future, while at the same time current appeals are failing to be met by the international community.

Alongside the humanitarian crisis is the origin and spirit of the conflict. The dawn of the revolution was not marked by Islamist militant attacks, but instead by peaceful protests hot on the heels of the Arab Spring. The protests varied in objective, but were invariably concerned with the desire for greater government transparency and electoral democracy. Dumbstruck, the regime defaulted to the hard handed approach of its previous leader, Hafez al-Assad, crushing protests with excessive force, resulting in many deaths. As tensions between the regime and protesters flared further, protesters began arming themselves, at first to protect demonstrations from deadly police action, but rapidly transitioning to infantry-based small arms skirmishes, gradually burgeoning into the conflict we are witnessing today. While protesters having to resort to armed conflict is a disheartening process to observe, the regime’s severe and utterly disproportionate response to protests was inexcusable and betrayed fundamental human rights, anchoring the foundations of the rebellion firmly in the aspiration of liberal democracy and human rights.

Significantly, the Syrian conflict is multifarious. It is all too easy, especially in the world of relentless headlines, to harbour a one-dimensional facile perspective of the situation in Syria. There is no single aspect of the conflict from which it is possible to extrapolate an accurate and succinct generalisation. There are genuine freedom fighters, the preponderant group of which is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with a real, albeit weak, command structure and a severe lack of supplies. The absence of steady supply lines for the FSA both in terms of food as well as weaponry and ammunition has made it possible for the better-resourced anti-regime foreign and domestic jihadists to amass themselves a higher and more prolific profile than secular freedom fighters, as well as de facto governmental control over areas such as Ar-Raqqah. Extreme groups such as these purportedly receive funding from regional actors such as Iran, with the recent entrance of the militant Lebanese-based Hezbollah into the conflict in support of the regime being a visible product of Iranian funding. Additionally, the north of Syria has fallen under some form of Kurdish control, seemingly seeking to establish a Syrian Kurdistan similar to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided meager assistance to opposition forces. It could even be said that there is a lack of clarity when it comes to the motives behind the regime’s staunch opposition to change – while it is true that the regime is mostly made up of a minority, the Alawites, and that there is a fear of reprisals against the Alawites if the regime were to fall,  it could be argued that Bashar Al-Assad’s determination to cling to power stems from an unwillingness to release dictatorial power first and foremost before any concerns for the minority group to which he belongs.

With these things taken into account, it would be wrong to bind cases of notoriety (such as the cruel implementation of Sharia law, or the cannibalistic rebel) to the reticent majority of the population, or take such notorious cases to be a perfect reflection of all armed rebels. Equally, these things do not justify any single automatic course of action by the West. What is evident however is that for any argument to be levelled either for or against intervention of any sort there must be substantial deliberation within the context of the circumstances on the ground in Syria, and also be approached with the persistent undercurrent of the desire to relieve humanitarian strife.

Ultimately, there is an imperative for any Western solution to the Syrian crisis to be strategically multi-pronged, involving both regional players as well as the Syrian people. Relying purely on diplomacy, or purely on varying degrees of intervention such as arming the rebels, will not produce rounded results encompassing broad interests and concerns, crucial for long-term stability. Sadly, the last two years of pure diplomacy have been ineffectual, failing the millions of Syrians on the ground who are suffering every day in direct violation of both the spirit and text of the United Nations Charter. Undoubtedly, diplomacy is a pivotal facet of any solution, and we must continue to pursue it as one channel of resolution, but it must not be pursued in a vacuum. The crisis in Syria is set to continue to intensify, further plunging not just the country but the wider Middle East and North Africa region into a huge schism from which relief is uncertain. The fragile conditions of nearby states such as Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, as well as the more quiescent Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan could, in the escalating climate, very easily erupt into varying degrees of violence as a result of spillovers from the Syrian conflict. Lebanon and Iraq are already experiencing an insidious growth in violence.

There is no denying that the Iraq war has cast a lengthy and justified shadow over Western intervention, something which David Cameron has explicitly recognised. However, rather than be blinded by intransigence, we should look back at the failures of Iraq and identify the many areas in which we can improve our handling of delicate situations such as that presented to us in Syria. What we must recognise is that there is a principled obligation for states to look after one another – for the international community to safeguard human rights and build a more stable world. Isolationism, as some Western commentators appear to advocate following Iraq, serves the interests of precious few. Instability, anywhere in the world, assists few and harms many.

In conclusion, with situations like Syria, rather than sit on the sidelines and hope that the situation resolves itself, we have a responsibility to be active in a proportional, pragmatic and bespoke manner.

Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare

The debate over the future of welfare has intensified over the past year or so, with Labour being placed under increasing pressure to declare its vision, and the right of the party and especially the “Blue Labour” faction advocating a downsizing of the welfare state which would be tantamount to a new consensus, abandoning the settlement established by the Attlee government following the Second World War which established uniformity and more importantly equality of treatment when it comes to welfare.

In it’s simplest form, welfare exists to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. It combats the inherent weaknesses of capitalism by preventing members of our society from slipping into regressive cycles of poverty where generations would otherwise be presented with a very limited scope of opportunities and the inability to escape poverty. More than this though, it builds a sense of societal solidarity where we, as a group, recognise that life does not always go to plan and that we all need support at times in our lives due to no fault of our own. In these situations, people deserve to be treated with respect and helped to return to some sense of normality in order to get back on their feet. Significantly, this support does not exist for society to give itself a pat on the back, but due to the fact that at a fundamental level all humans are equal with a common set of rights which should not be subject to upbringing, life choices or wealth.

The basic goal of Labour is not to have a big state or to centralise government. Instead, it is simply to build a society in which every person has equal opportunities and a pleasant quality of life. For this reason, some in Labour have mooted the concept of contributory welfare. The idea is a rather adventurous reimagination of welfare which would see people ‘pay’ into the system. The more someone ‘pays’ in, the more they get out in times of need. Professor Heinz Wolff recently aired a similar idea for elderly care on Daily Politics. In both cases, ‘paying’ into the system does not refer to money, but rather to volunteer work helping your local community or elderly relatives. At the core of this concept is the desire to nurture a much more philanthropic, caring, and communally active and aware society.

However, while it is perfectly noble and valid to pursue such a vision for a caring society, doing so through welfare reforms would be both unfair and heavy-handed. Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare which is to offset inequalities and to treat everyone at the same equitable level. In many ways, it’s an oxymoron as welfare based on contributions would essentially introduce inequalities into a system which is supposed to dampen inequalities through a sense of solidarity and equality of treatment. However much we would like to expand the philanthropic sector and build a more volunteer and community centric society, we cannot do so through treating some people better than others in their time of need.

Additionally, it is unclear how you would gauge the level of contribution to society, whether disabilities would be factored into the equation, as well as the time consumed by people who have jobs and thus have no time to volunteer, or the skills required to care for people with complex illnesses. These issues would make it  likely that the realities of contributory welfare would spawn a greater bureaucracy than is currently the case. On top of this, large sections of the population would need to be exempted from the contributory system due to the fact that their lives simply permit them precious few opportunities to contribute as much as others.

Expanding the philanthropic sector is a key responsibility for any future government, but doing so by introducing overt inequalities into the welfare system would be a poor course of action and would ultimately prove to be a regressive, rather than progressive, measure, harming those in need while at the same time failing to achieve a real philanthropic society. Government-led schemes to organise, provide a framework for, and to encourage a more philanthropic society are needed, but they must be optional with those taking part doing so in an altruistic manner to help others rather than themselves. Any reform to welfare must not sacrifice equality or be heavy-handed.

Credit: Xavier Häpe - http://www.flickr.com/photos/vier/192493917/

Europe must move together

French President Francois Hollande recently called for a eurozone economic government with the power to raise taxes, borrow and have a budget. This is not really surprising, with the almost-unanimous agreement amongst economists that for the euro to survive, it needs a strong fiscal union in order to better handle future crises in the currency.

What is worrying however is the speed at which Hollande has advocated the idea. Clearly, there are 16 additional opinions to be heard on the matter, though there is a very real risk that a fiscal union could be implemented without a broader vision for the entirety of the EU. Many have termed this possibility as being a two-tier Europe, one in which the inner circle of eurozone countries move towards ever-greater integration both fiscally and, significantly, politically, while non-eurozone members become an afterthought on the sidelines. This would be a terrible course of action.

We are currently undergoing a substantial challenge to the EU, with minority and mainstream parties alike speaking of reform – a general spell of isolationism in an economic depression, hardly to be expected – a foreign enemy is always a convenient scapegoat. In some ways, it’s interesting to note that with all the integration up to this point, there seems to be a distinct lack of solidarity on the European level – Europe just isn’t together in fighting in the same corner against common adversity.

Of course, I would love to see dramatic reform of the EU, but only in a constructive and progressive manner with a unified vision of solidarity and compassion, and of sharp critique of isolationism. Following the same disjointed path as the United States would be disastrous – a situation where two catch-all centrist parties are at each other’s necks constantly, a constitution so entrenched that common sense need not raise its hand, and a federal government system where nothing gets done and the people with popular support are hamstrung by those without.

My key point is that we cannot rush reform, and more importantly we must not retreat from integration as a way to resolve the democratic deficit. Instead, we should work to strengthen the democratic heartbeat of the Union, the Parliament, by truly making it the absolute authority, discarding the Commission and other messy and undemocratic intergovernmental relics of which the Union is in abundance. Crucially, we, all 27 member states, must move together. We must look at the bigger picture, move away from technical issues and seriously ask ourselves the question: what do we want Europe to be?

(Featured Image Credit: Xavier Häpe)