Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tony Blair's Syria intervention seems more measured than his scarred record suggests

Yet a vociferous earthbound verdict on his record has greeted with brickbats – if potentially tainted with confusion – his latest intervention on, well, intervention.

Instinctive cries of ‘war criminal’, understandable as they may be to many, threaten to mask what at heart was a surprisingly conciliatory if unsurprisingly pragmatic speech on Wednesday morning.

Far from outright urging Britain and others to drop bombs on or arm rebel fighters in the likes of Syria, Iran or – even more, anyway – Libya, his encouragement of mere ‘engagement’ was strikingly vaguer.

Why, he might even have startled sympathisers and critics alike by recommending at least some acceptance, if not necessarily appeasement, of ruling regimes in Iran and Syria.

Bashar al-Assad’s too-durable reign in Syria – strengthened by recent skirmishes and likely to be enhanced by newly-called elections – looks a realpolitik reality for the time being at least, Mr Blair suggested.

Yet he did seem to also scorn the Tory-Lib Dem coalition for threatening dire consequences for Assad and his allies, and hinting at support for rebel fighters, while providing little action accompanying those words.

Of course, David Cameron and his own backers can – and will – point the finger at Ed Miliband, among those whose stated concerns about military strikes helped see them struck down in Parliament.

And yet the prime minister’s immediate response, a disavowal of even considering any similar action, felt counter-productively melodramatic and not what even Labour’s Syria doves were expecting.

Mr Blair’s apparent acceptance of not only Assad’s ongoing rule but also those of Iran’s dubiously-progressive Rouhani and Egypt’s military coup-hoisted SIsi contrast with previous hurtles towards toppling Afghan and Iraqi regimes.

Both wars, however devoutly and sincerely he felt the causes, have unleashed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of deaths, many more life-transforming injuries while leaving both nations suffering further, if different, miseries.

Yet such Western intervention was more warmly welcomed in the Nineties in the Balkans, when atrocities such as Srebrenica cast shame on the complacency – or corruption – of those most eager to look away.

Mr Blair remains a hero to many in Sierra Leone, where schools are named in his honour when his Britain finally, if belatedly, backed Nigerian-led African Union forces in helping end a 11-year civil war.

Personal travels in Syria last autumn found many tormented refugees desperately pleading for Western-led military action aimed at ousting Assad, anguished at being seemingly teased by recedingly-hawkish Britain, Barack Obama and the United Nations.

Why, even in Zimbabwe when reporting undercover in the midst of the hyper-inflation and cholera crisis of 2008, brave opponents of Robert Mugabe were disappointed to hear his feverish forecasts of British invasion were outlandish.

Yet while Assad – and his Russian and Chinese loyalists – have played a canny game in stalling peace talks while making chemical weapons the central issue and concession, his regime goes on punishing his people with conventional rockets and bombs and arrests and torture.

Targeted airstrikes at any remaining chemical depots would now be so long-delayed as to be ineffective, while no-fly-zones pose problems in enforcing.

Yet even without sending in troops, tanks or bomber-planes, the international community has settled for the hot air of a Blair without direct effects such as sanctions or – most grievously – secure and entire access for aid agencies.

Our former prime minister’s speech today was more measured than much of the critical reaction.

Yet the wait goes on for some useful space to be found between jaw-jaw and war-war.

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