There’s an old newspaper adage that editors are wise to stick to and it is this: ‘When in doubt, leave it out.’
The message is unambiguous. When you’re unsure of the veracity of a story no matter how reader-grabbing its appeal, when you cannot double-check the sources from whence it emanated and the office lawyer is giving birth to a small litter of kittens, you expunge it. Or, in old Press parlance – before the advent of paperless offices – the iffy copy is ‘spiked’.
Diplomats, especially from the Western democracies, ought to note this maxim over Syria.
Naturally, it’s heart-rendering to see TV images of tots ripped apart by shrapnel, of entire families summarily executed in their owns home by murderous henchmen of the odious Assad regime and no decent person, with an iota of compassion, can help thinking, ‘This carnage must stop!’
And French President, Francois Hollande, is to be applauded for calling for a no-fly zone and safe haven for refugees in the north of this hellhole of a busted state.
The problem – as evidenced by post-Gaddafi Libya, in particular, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt – is Western audiences are under some starry-eyed illusion. They are led to believe the insurgents (e.g. the Free Syrian Army) are a cohesive force, under a central command, with a political wing ready to wrest the reins of power from an evil dictator and impose a welcome dose of democracy.
Ah, if only.
Without detracting from Assad’s crimes against humanity, the rebels are a mishmash of divergent, sometimes warring groups, Al Qaeda included. Many are ruthlessly tribal, with centuries old scores to settle; others are religious fanatics, more than inclined towards a little throat-slitting themselves, who are hell bent on ethnically cleansing Syria of Shia Muslims, the ruling Alewites and Christians.
And there is hardly a hint of a united political class surfacing.
So getting rid of Assad could be a prelude to decades of internecine bloodletting that the useless talking shop known as the UN is even more inept – if that’s remotely possible – at sorting out.Meanwhile, the opposing factions on the ground are backed by a motley collection of outside interests: the amoral Russians, Chinese and lunatic Iranians supporting the repellent Assad mob; the Saudis, Qataris and Turks giving succour to the rebels, thus transforming this into a proxy war.
Libya, with NATO help, ridded itself of mad Gaddafi, but has disintegrated into tribal factionalism. And even Egypt, which saw largely middle-class students launch a peaceful insurrection by grabbing control of Tahrir Square, has been hijacked by the ‘bearded ones’ of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were noticeable by their absence when the college kids bravely took on the army and brought down Mubarak.
As many – including this writer – predicted, the hopeful Arab Spring is quickly turned into a dire Islamic Winter. And, though the Brothers won a largely fair election in Egypt, they were the only bunch organised enough to capitalise on the political vacuum.
To those who stalk the corridors of Western power, from the White House to No.10 and the Elysee Palace, the fall of the House of Assad would be a blessing. Primarily, with Damascus the cornerstone of the Iran-Syria-Lebanon (Hizbollah-controlled) axis, the tinpot satrap’s demise would break the Shia stranglehold, so loathed by Syria’s Sunni majority and its external allies, especially the Saudis.
It might even put the brake of Tehran’s ambitions for regional domination.
However, with the UN, who couldn’t stop a classroom scrap, sidelined and the democracies – usual suspects: USA, UK and France – understandably reluctant to get Syrian sand on Western Crusader boots, the only alternative is the Arab League.
After their short-lived ‘observer’ mission beat a hasty retreat months ago, there is little will for this gobby, drum-banging, sabre-rattling bunch of do-nothings to step up to the plate and take responsibility for a bloody civil war raging in their own back yard.
However, the League remains the only viable alternative to imposing a peace settlement. They just need to find the guts to do it.
Meanwhile, the West should take an old editor’s advice: When in doubt, keep out.