Should we really arm the Syrian rebels?
When I joined the Foreign Office as a callow trainee diplomat almost 30 years ago, Britain still clung proudly to the notion that it was a global superpower with real diplomatic influence. For there was at the heart of British foreign policy a post-colonial conceit. We really believed that a nation that had built the largest empire the world had ever known, covering a quarter of the globe’s land mass, had a unique right to punch above its weight on the international stage. Back in the early 1980s, before our foreign policy became enfeebled by European bureaucracy, we British diplomats were the true masters of the universe. In fact the hubris stayed with me into the 1990s, when I became one of the new masters, an investment banker.
But how did this grandeur fit with our moral stance as a nation? After Labour’s election victory in 1997 Robin Cook became Foreign Secretary and began talking about the need for an “ethical” foreign policy. You could almost hear the FCO mandarins sniggering into their gin and tonics at their elite watering-hole of choice, the Travellers’ Club on Pall Mall. They would have found comfort in the Henry Kissinger quote: “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security”. Robin Cook was gone within a few years, and since then Britain seems to have developed a unique knack of ending up on the wrong – and often the unethical – side of the diplomatic debate.
The British historian Mark Curtis charted this moral decline in his 2003 book “Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World”. He noted that since 1945 Britain has in many respects become a rogue state, promoting immoral policies in Kenya, Malaya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq and Indonesia, while supporting repressive states such as Israel, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states. Britain was even complicit with France in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by failing to act to stop the bloodshed when it had the power to do so.
So there can be little surprise that even today Britain continues to get the wrong end of the ethical foreign policy stick, especially when it comes to the Middle East. It has been ever thus, even going back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which had the temerity to give the Jewish people a “national home” in Palestine, which actually belonged to somebody else. Last November, when a majority of EU member states were recognising the Palestinian bid for non-member observer status at the UN, Britain spinelessly decided to abstain, while lecturing the Palestinians on how they should endeavour to end the 45-year Israeli occupation of their land. Britain’s largest arms customer, Saudi Arabia, is condemned by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for its appalling human rights record.
And now we learn that Foreign Secretary William Hague is pressing his European partners to relax the EU embargo on providing arms to the Syrian rebels. As if a civil war which has already yielded over 70,000 deaths, one million refugees and 3.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), as well as (to use the words of one development agency) a “collapse in childhood” for two million Syrian children, really needed yet more weapons being passed around. But just think of the jobs back here in the UK if the machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are British!
Of course it is not a war against the Assad regime that is being fought here, but a proxy war by the West and its regional allies against the influence of President Assad’s backers, Russia and Iran. Britain is still fighting the battles of the 19th century, when it struggled with Russia for mastery in Central Asia in the so-called ‘Great Game’.
Hague’s front man in the campaign to arm the rebels is former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 last month he argued that there was a humanitarian imperative to arm the rebels, to “tip the balance” in their fight against Assad. He seemed oblivious to the fact that any escalation in arms supplies to the rebels would lead to increased Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah support for the Syrian government, leading to even more bloodshed. There is now a serious risk that Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons will be used against the rebels. It is really quite simple: you cannot end the violence in Syria by escalating the violence.
If we cannot rely on the British government to find its moral compass, how should we Christians respond to the terrible events unfolding in Syria? Well there are no easy answers. But we were called by Jesus himself to be peacemakers, which is not the same as pacifists (the Greek word used in Matthew 5:9 implies active peace-making, of the ambassadorial kind). We are enjoined (Hebrews 12:14) to “make every effort to live in peace with everyone”, which again hardly implies inactivity on the part of the peacemaker. And of course, empowered by the Holy Spirit and following the supreme example of Jesus, we are to seek peace even against all the odds (Philippians 4:13).
The international community has shamefully failed the Syrian people with its toothless diplomacy, and now it wants to compound that failure by supplying yet more instruments of death. As Christians we must urge our government to work for peace, not yet more bloodshed. Jeremy Moodey is a former FCO diplomat (1983-93) and
is now Chief Executive of Embrace the Middle East, the interdenominational development charity that tackles poverty and injustice in the lands of the Bible. Embrace has given £250,000 in humanitarian support to local Christian agencies working with Syrian refugees and IDPs, and has just
launched its Syria appeal at www.embraceme.org/syria2013.