Thursday, April 13, 2017

Myths it's time to abandon 1) My enemy's enemy is my friend

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about old ideas which have far more influence than they deserve on our thinking, often without people realising it, and which it is high time we outgrew. The old idea I would like to suggest we consign to the bin today is this one:

"My enemy's enemy is my friend."

There have been historical instances of nations in Europe managing to make this principle work for them for a while. The "Ault Alliance" of Scotland and France against England in the days before the Union of the Crowns is perhaps an example, for instance, though Jacobites who attempted to revive it found themselves pawns in the game of European diplomacy and great harm came to Scotland as a result.

However, if is relatively easy to point to the day in history when the harm done by this concept outweighed any good it had previously done, drowning the entire continent and a significant part of the rest of the world in blood.

28th June 1914.

That was the date on which a teenage lunatic with a revolver, part of a small group of conspirators apparently co-ordinated by prominent members of Serbian military intelligence who had "gone rogue" (and were subsequently executed for treason) shot an Austrian archduke and his wife.

It's not entirely surprising that this caused a war between Austria and Serbia: but of course, it did not end there..

In 1914 most of the nations of Europe were part of one or other of two vast rival systems of interlocking defensive alliances which had been built not on the basis of shared values, as NATO is, but mostly on the basis that "My enemy's enemy is my friend." When Austria responded to the Sarajevo assassination by declaring war on Serbia, practically the entire continent was dragged into the war through these alliances, and ultimately with them much of the rest of the world.

More than nine million combatants and seven million civilians died as a consequence of what was known at the time as "The Great War" or, too optimistically as it proved, as "The war to end wars" but which we most often now refer to as the first world war. Because of the idea that my enemy's enemy is my friend, one bullet fired in the Balkans caused the deaths of sixty thousand Australians, sixty thousand Indians, and three quarters of a million Brits, along with other people from all around the world.

The modern example which should most disprove the principle is the one where it most obviously influences the thinking of many people - the Middle East in general and Syria and Iraq in particular.

The tapestry of rival religious, ethnic and political factions in the Middle East, most of whom hate one another, is more complex than even experts can fully understand.

In the Syrian civil war, for instance, there are a large number of factions as this map of the territory controlled by different groups attempts to illustrate:

In this complex situation, whether one actor gains if you weaken another is far from obvious. But the trap laid by the propaganda of the Syrian regime and their Russian allies, a trap which is fallen into all too readily by an many normally sensible people, is the one illustrated in this cartoon:

The Assad regime are butchers and war criminals. So is DA'ESH, the organisation which claims to be the new Islamic Caliphate and is sometimes known as "Islamic State," IS, ISIS or ISIL

It is a perfectly valid point that the West should be careful to assess the full consequences of any actions we take in Syria, and should be particularly careful to avoid acting against one vile regime in ways which have the effect of causing more people to come under the control of an even worse one.

But it is a great mistake to move from this valid point to believing all the Syrian regime or Russian propaganda which excuses every atrocity by claiming that everyone they bombed or gassed was part of DA'ESH when all too frequently the victims of Syrian and Russian attacks have been nothing of the kind.

Russia and the Assad regime describe every one of their airstrikes as being against IS (DA'ESH) or "terrorists" but all too many of the Syrian regime's barrel bombs, and Russian bombs and missiles as well, have been landing on members of other opposition groups not aligned with DA'ESH such as the Kurds or the Free Syrian Army, and with depressing regularity on hospitals, schools, rescue workers, and unfortunate innocent civilians. Pointing this out does not make one an apologist for DA'ESH.

There is no good option in Syria, only a choice between bad options and terrible ones. Doing nothing falls into one of these categories (which is not a justification for taking a course of action which will have even more disastrous consequences than doing nothing).

If we see the opportunity to build a negotiated peace which does not represent a complete victory for either of the most vile factions in Syria, we should probably take it. And we should not let the outdated idea that "my enemy's enemy is my friend" cloud our judgement.


Jim said...

The USA have had it in for Syria and Iran for a long time now. Call me cynical but I think the refusal to support the petro dollar may have more to do with it than any map.

Chris Whiteside said...

The map is only there to illustrate the fact that there are many sides in the Syrian conflict, not just the Assad regime and DA'ESH (IS).

I don't think the petro dollar had much to do with Trump's change of mind about Syria which is a relatively small oil supplier, and produced only about half a percent of the world's oil output in 2010.

Trump was faced with a choice between bad options and terrible ones in terms of whether or not to let Assad get away with gassing civilians. He made the decision, rightly or wrongly, that ignoring it and sending the signal that the USA was too weak to do anything was worse than a carefully targeted and pretty minimalist response aimed at the airfield from which the Sarin airstrike was launched.