Israel sees the West's inaction

By Robert Philpot, August 21, 2014
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One year ago, in the early hours of August 21 2013, Bashar al-Assad's forces launched rockets containing chemical warheads at two Damascus suburbs, Eastern and Western Ghouta. Nearly 1,500 people – including at least 426 children – died in the two attacks, the most deadly use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed the citizens of Halabja in 1988.

While the streets of our cities have reverberated this summer to loud cries for action against Israel, last year the chants were for inaction against Assad. Just over a week later, parliament fell in with crowd, blocking British participation in planned US military action to enforce Barack Obama's "red line" against the use of chemical weapons. The "rush to war" in Syria, proclaimed Ed Miliband, had been halted.

Today, that proclamation rings somewhat hollow. The death toll in Syria stood at 100,000 last August. It now stands close to 170,000. The number of displaced people – in all, 42 per cent of Syrians are believed to have fled their homes – continues to rise. The Assad regime, in defiance of UN security council resolutions, continues to rain barrel bombs down on civilian areas.

There is no denying that the vote in parliament reflected the views of a war-weary public and a new political consensus.

This is not a West versus Islam conflict

But while we are constantly cautioned to "learn the lessons of the Iraq war", isn't it now time to reflect on three years of the West's apparent indifference to the slow-motion destruction of the Syrian nation?

As Hillary Clinton, drawing an implicit contrast between the Bush administration and the presidency of the man she served as Secretary of State until last January, suggests in an interview with the Atlantic magazine this month, "when you're down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you're not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward."

She cites Syria as a case in point. The West's failure there to "build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad," Clinton argues, "left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled".

The consequences of that failure are now felt far beyond the borders of Syria, as Isis menaces Kurdistan and threatens genocide against the Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac Christian and Yazidi peoples of Iraq. As Clinton correctly maintains, the jihadists are inherently expansionist. In response, she advocates a Cold War-like strategy of "containment, deterrence and defeat".

David Rothkopf, author of the forthcoming book National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, believes that whether it is Hamas in Gaza, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the al-Nusrah Front in Syria, al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula or the Islamic State forging its caliphate, "it is clear that extremist Islam is emerging as a threat so broad that it must be seen in its totality to be contended with". This is not, however, a conflict between the West and Islam. The West's role is to bolster moderate Muslims who believe that piety and progress can coexist, against the extremists who seek to bring medieval barbarity to the 21st century.

Israel's critics frequently contend that the suffering of the Palestinian people is the root cause of radicalism and terror in the Middle East. It detracts not a bit from that suffering to state the absurdity of this argument. It is, as Clinton also recognises, fear of terror and radicalism which drives Israel's demand to maintain security in the West Bank – not least to prevent cross-border attacks – and thus makes a deal between it and the Palestinian Authority so intractable.

Moreover, watching the West's inaction in Syria – and its procrastination as the new barbarians of Isis, who its pusilanimity helped to breed, sweep across Iraq, butchering supposed enemies in their wake – is it any wonder if Israel ponders the question: if we don't protect ourselves, who will?

Robert Philpot is editor of Progress magazine

    Last updated: 12:23pm, August 21 2014