Gunning for it: attack on Syria will kill and will achieve nothing else

I AM conscious of the rush to action in Syria. I served in the FCA in the 1980s. It was brief and a debacle. I loathed firing guns. Our Lee-Enfield rifles kicked like mules. Embarrassingly, I was unable to ever hit my targets. No matter how wide or near the target, I could never perforate it with a bullet. Thankfully, I never hit anything by accident, either.

It was all guns misfired and ricocheting expletives. My surname was prefaced and succeeded by “eejit”, and the “eejit” prefaced by other adjectives of abuse that need not be printed. The abuse was not unfair; it was merely unkind.

The strategic objective, and there was one, was to go on summer camp and get paid for two weeks as a regular solider. It was Kilworth Camp the first year, and Monaghan Barracks the next. My most dangerous mission, chiefly to myself, was overnight guard duty at Monaghan. A small detachment of ‘men’, though we teenagers hardly qualified for that appellation, we were kitted out with boots, helmet, combats, rifle and live ammunition.

Our duty was to patrol the perimeter and protect the guard house, with its store of weapons and ammunition. The night passed peacefully.

Those were times when a barracks on the border was a potential target. In the event of attack, I can’t imagine my response being more proficient than a swift, involuntary bowel movement. The boots and the combat jacket saw ‘active’ service subsequently, in student days.

My mercenary earnings were swiftly spent. My lasting impression is of the power of a gun. Those Lee-Enfield rifles were Dad’s Army issue even then, but the kick, the power of a single bullet, was something to fear. And if I was a fool, it wasn’t a comedy. The one thing we were successfully taught was weapons safety. Even I couldn’t do any harm to myself.

Watching much of what passes for expert analysis on Syria, particularly from those calling for intervention, my FCA career comes to mind.

Syria is a very serious situation being translated as comedy. What is the strategic purpose of intervention? To justify firing big guns, let alone small ones, there must be one.

Basher al-Assad is a murderous thug. So was Saddam Hussein. But in the years after Saddam’s removal, more Iraqis were killed than at the height of his mayhem. Iraq is in continuing danger of splitting into its three, constituent parts. Such a split would be by means of catastrophic civil war. For now, it’s held together, but for how long? Syria is potentially more dangerous. The internal fissures are more numerous and complex.

Unlike Saddam, Assad has significant internal support. The Egyptian military regime has killed as many as 2,000 of its own people, since overthrowing Mohamed Morsi.

Very few, and particularly not those advocating intervention in Syria, are suggesting the supply of cash and weapons from gulf Arab states and the Americans be stopped. Then, there is a strategic imperative in keeping an authoritative regime in power in Cairo. That strategy, for now, is also realisable. And for all its faults, the Egyptian army is possibly better than the Morsi government it replaced.

Chemical weapons are appalling. You can take my word, as a coward: that is not a glib comment. Like nuclear weapons before them, their non-proliferation is critically important. But every objective has to be realisable. It is impossible to see, for now, how any of those posited for Syria are realisable.

The great discordance of our collective Western view of the Arab world is clearest not in Cairo or Damascus, but in Dublin 15, in Saint Denis, outside Paris, and in tower blocks and sink estates across Europe.

The Arab Muslim is, in the European imagination, the clearly identifiable other. In our consciousness, we have been menaced by them for centuries. They are the longest, last, and most persistent danger we have faced.

Go to Sicily or the south of Spain, look at the people and see, for yourself, an Arab epoch that lasted for generations.

Unlike the Arab, the enemy without, the Jew was the enemy within. The Jews threatened us because they preceded us. They had an authority and an antiquity that, in its persistence, unnervingly questioned the version of events upon which our society was based. Libelled as “Christ-killers”, they were periodically killed and nearly eradicated by us. I say “us” because, in Ireland, we were as indifferent in the 1930s to concentration camps there as we were to industrial schools here.

Our response to our fear of the Arab world is a continuing intellectual colonisation. Arabs are infantilised by the colonialism of condescension. It is beyond our scope to imagine, much less accept, that any rational Arab community would want a future that is not secular, liberal and democratic. But ask any Arab in the West about liberal values. They are imported as cheap labour, resented and feared for their otherness, and accused of not assimilating.

Our concern for Arabs far away is juxtaposed by our suspicion of those nearby. They don’t trust us. We don’t trust them. There is a chasm and it can’t be bridged by Western armies in the Middle East, nor the gobbledygook of politically correct thought at home.

EUROPE of the enlightenment, a secular liberal Europe, is fundamentally at odds with the Arab world. When there was only the small matter of different gods worshiped differently, periodic accommodation was possible. But secularism opens a new void. It is renewing extremes. Hezbollah means, literally, “the party of God”. Who, in their right mind, could be against a party of God?

The French, under Napoleon, pioneered colonialism in the Middle East. The British followed. The vote in the House of Commons is surely an end of empire for Britain.

That end really came over Suez; then, Thatcher and Blair recast the narrative. But it was alchemy, not real gold. The French, a decade ago, were abused by the coalition of the willing, heading towards Iraq, as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

Now, President Francois Hollande is reasserting an ever weaker French hand by committing to action. The knotting of contradictions continues.

The West enjoys neither the authority nor the capacity to intervene in far-off places at will. This matters. Forty seven Irish soldiers gave their lives in Lebanon. Now, Irish troops are going to the Golan Heights, in Syria, under UN authority. Yesterday, the Minister for Defence, Alan Shatter, reviewed those troops at Cathal Brugha Barracks, in Rathmines. Unlike this fool, they are professional soldiers. On their behalf, we have a strategic imperative. Syria is a theatre of war, not a game show. I wish them safely home.

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