TALKING POINT: Syria from the sidelines? We can do better
A democratically elected government has been ousted, a former autocrat is out of jail, and hundreds are killed by chemical weapons. Sir Cyril Townsend asks, what next for the Arab world?
They do not talk of the Arab Spring today. The removal of the ruthless, cruel and highly corrupt Hosni Mubarak from a Cairo prison to a suite in a military hospital was shocking news. It is true he has not yet escaped the legal jungle, but after two years of muddle and confusion Egypt has largely gone around a political circle.
During that time thousands of civilians have been killed by the Army and the police, President Muhammad Morsi tried to rule in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood and was a disaster, Christian Coptic churches have been burnt by mobs and the restored military regime in Cairo looks to the Gulf States to save its economic life. Egypt, with its population of 81 million and long and impressive history, is the country that sets the form in the Arab world. It looks as if in the next six months General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will become the next president of Egypt and will continue to drive the Muslim Brotherhood underground – a place it had previously occupied for decades.
Tunisia continues in a state of chaos although the Islamist Party had previously gained powerful support. The state's former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is a refugee in Saudi Arabia. We in Britain watch with considerable anguish current events in Libya – from which the UK buys huge quantities of oil. The signs are that in Libya the centre cannot hold and militiamen, whose loyalty has been to their cities and towns, have been responsible for sporadic violence. Some Islamists are pushing for an Islamic state across the Maghreb. Between 2006 and 2007 Iraq came close to a civil war. Car bombs in the crowded markets and shopping streets this year suggest a fresh round of sectarian bloodshed. More than 1,000 people were killed in July. In Yemen, there seems to be a return to the status of a failed state. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula frightened the United States to close down 19 diplomatic stations in the region, and the UK its embassy in Sana'a. Nothing happened, but there is a sign of power for you.
Of course, it is the collapse of Syria into three mini states, the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population – almost certainly by the Assad regime – and the movement of hundreds and thousands of refugees within Syria, and fleeing to neighbouring states, that has correctly focussed attention on the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 Syrians so far.
A year ago Barak Obama declared "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised". Unfortunately the US failed to act and the options available today have become far more difficult and dangerous.
The chemical attack in Damascus killed between 300 and 1,300 people. It was the worst chemical attack since Saddam Hussein killed up to 5,000 people at Halabja in Northern Iraq in 1988. A failure by the international community to respond suggests further chemical attacks, perhaps on a larger scale, could be carried out and not be punished.
I fully agreed with a Downing Street spokesman who said on August 24: "This is not just about the victims of the chemical attacks but the future of the 21st century and the kind of world we want to live in."
Given that extremely depressing background, I still do not believe that in the fierce struggle between state authority and Islamist rule on centuries-old religious lines, that it will be the "strong men" with military backgrounds that will always end up on top. Times have changed and the Arab Spring has encouraged new attitudes. The Arab world has become far more interested in the pursuit of human rights, led by increasingly younger populations and supported by modern communications. People will not accept being pushed around throughout their troubled lives by foolish and arrogant cliques – led by such people as Hosni Mubarak or Bashar al Assad.
People, even if ill-educated, desire to have the right to elect their own representatives and their potential leaders to safeguard themselves and their families. Throughout our lives the number of people able to elect their own representatives has multiplied beyond measure, and the Middle East is not immune. The cry for liberty, opportunity and dignity will run and run over one nation's border and then another – much helped by the electronic revolution with its cheaper devices and aids.
The bad news is that the time taken for such changes will be measured in decades rather than single years, and will involve both conflict and a measure of chaos.
I do not envisage the United Kingdom having a major role as it did in previous years; what it can and must do is to know where it stands, and to encourage the positive trends without fear. Wringing our hands and deciding it is all too difficult would be wrong and extremely foolish. Our history tells us we can do better than that.
Do you agree? Let us know by commenting below.
Follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/WesternDaily