South Africa

Can you hear the drums, Al-Assad? The postmodern morality tale of Syria

By Stephen Grootes 5 September 2013

As the war drums beat around Syria and the rumble of missile tests drifts across the Mediterranean, there’s a global argument raging. Should someone be punished for using poison gas on his own people? The question is complex and fraught with fact and various fictions. There are huge assumptions and many claims that just don’t hold up. STEPHEN GROOTES attempts to recalibrate the debate.

Whenever I pick up my trusty, dusty and, if I lived near the coast, rusty iPad keyboard to tap out something about the Middle East, my heart sinks. This never ends well. Part of me just gets so annoyed that one section of the world takes up so much airtime in the world’s media as well as our own airwaves.

I get irritated, also, that it seems to evoke emotions in South Africans that are sometimes stronger than any feelings expressed during our own, inherently hectic arguments. I know also that to even touch on this subject is likely to result in a comment section filled with anger and a Twitter timeline that may well melt down.

‘Twas ever thus. But the cocktail of geopolitics, military power and morality cannot be left untouched.

At the moment, using a Rumsfeldian prism, this is what we know we know: there was an attack on a civilian area in Syria that seemed to involve some sort of chemical weapon. We know that over a thousand people died. And we know that the world, through various conventions, has banned anyone from using such weapons for almost hundred years. We also know that US President Barack Obama has said that if Bashir Al-Assad were to use such weapons, he would cross the infamous “red line”.

That is pretty much it, for now.

Then we have the arguments for intervention: that if Assad gets away with it there’s nothing to stop someone else doing the same, that the world should intervene in this conflict anyway (bear in mind, even if there are no chemical weapons involved here, we’re still talking about artillery and airstrikes on apartment blocks and schools) and that someone somewhere must stop this conflict to save lives.

Then there are the arguments against: that it could all go wrong, escalating the conflict, that Assad may not have used chemical weapons anyway, that he’s no worse than any other horrid dictator, that the US has no right to take this kind of unilateral action and that it could get horribly sucked in.

Those are the arguments; nothing else really matters.

But instead of having a debate on these terms, we have claims, by many, including President Jacob Zuma, that no one “should take unilateral action”, or that “any action must first be approved by the United Nations” or that the whole world should somehow be involved in this decision.

On the face of it, that makes perfect sense.

Except anyone who knows anything about the real world will know that Russia and China, as always, will veto any action against Assad. And herein lies the problem. There is a sense of postmodern morality at play here which suggests that because the US wants to take action and Russia and China oppose this, and because all nations are equal, then this action shouldn’t happen.


Anyone who claims that Russia and China’s morality is equal to that of the US should try living in those countries. Go there with your gay flag, your crucifix and your Dalai Lama t-shirt and see what happens. The fact is, you cannot compare.

The reason these two countries are vetoing action over Syria has nothing to do with morality. It is because, as my history teachers through the years, from early high school through to Brooks Spector have always taught me, foreign policy begins at home.

China’s human rights record leaves much to be desired from its track record in relation to the legal and political status of Tibet, its violations of freedom of speech, movement and religion for citizens, detentions without trial and its lack of judicial independence.

China doesn’t want anyone sticking their noses into their country so it can’t allow anyone to stick their noses in elsewhere either.

For Russia it means Chechnya and the way it treats some of its “near-abroad”, as newly-independent republics are referred to.

And then of course there’s the little matter that Syria hosts Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean.

Don’t be fooled, Vladimir Putin was not top of the class at the KGB’s Morality School.

This all points to the main problem, the real reason we’re not debating this properly.

It’s because we, us, you, me, the world, are still stuck in a system that actually suited the victors of the Second World War. For all the love in the world, will someone explain why France is still on the UN Security Council, with the veto that this position bestows?

And the UK? (The answer as to why they were included in the first place is of course that the US, the UK and Russia won the damn war. China was so big it had to be included and the UK and the US wanted France – a defeated power no less – so that they could out-vote the others). There is no good reason that this configuration of countries still makes sense in the 21st century.

To provide an example of how silly this is, think of this prospect. South Africa currently has troops fighting around Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a UN-sanctioned mission against the M-23 group, which seems to have been started by Rwanda. Now imagine that Rwanda, through some quirk of history, had a permanent seat, and thus a veto at the UN Security Council. Our soldiers would not be fighting there now, despite the moral case for them to do so.

So how then can Zuma and many others claim that Obama must “not act unilaterally”? If world history had been different then they would not be able to act “unilaterally” in the DRC either.

There are many who question Obama’s motive for even talking about intervention. To interrogate any politician at any time is always a good and noble exercise (you might have noticed we like to do that a bit from time to time as well). And considering the US’s history in the Middle East (weapons of mass destruction anyone…anyone…?) it is right that we question it.

Except I cannot think of any ulterior motive for using missiles to attack parts of Syria.

It has no oil. It has nothing the Americans really want that badly. Sure there’s that Russian naval base? But if Obama really wanted to taunt the bear, there would be an easier way to do it.

No doubt some will say that this is all about Israel and that by attacking Syria the US is somehow helping that country. There is perhaps something to that argument, except that Turkey is very keen on this action as well, and it has not been very friendly to Israel of late.

And there is the claim that Israel is raining exactly the same kind of death upon Palestinians, without US intervention. There is something in that, too, perhaps. But it cannot be that because a nation has failed to act in one area, it cannot intervene in another. That would simply be to allow suffering in one place because there is suffering elsewhere.

International relations are not simple. Diplomacy is, by its nature, complex. But let’s reduce it to the lowest common denominator. If you witness innocent people dying in their thousands, if you see them being pulverised and abused by a force greater and stronger than themselves, that the might of a country’s military is being used against them, shouldn’t you act if you can?

Isn’t that what the US did during the First and Second World Wars? And failed to do in Rwanda? DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He tends not to delve into the Middle East unless he absolutely has to.

Photo: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma welcomes his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul (L) and his wife Hayrunisa (R) in Damascus May 15, 2009. REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA POLITICS)


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