(Note: My Snowden/sociology piece has spawned a longer essay on the same subject area, in Foreign Policy.)
And I'm sorry, but I can't stay away from the clusterfuck of our security policy and the inane side-effects of the war on terror. Like a dog returning to its vomit, I've just got to circle back to middle-eastern politics.
Short version: proposals in the UK and USA to carry out bombing strikes against the Assad regime in Syria are not only criminal (in the absence of a firm UN Security Council ruling on the matter), they're stupid. One such imperial adventure might be an accident, two might be a coincidence, but embarking on a third one within a decade of the blood-spattered fiasco that was Iraq and the traumatic counter-insurgency occupation that was Afghanistan should be grounds for incarcerating any western politician proposing it in an institution for the criminally insane.
Syria, lest we forget, is in the throes of a civil war. The government—a nastily dynastic version of the Ba'athist quasi-fascist ideology that dominated many Arab nations between the mid-1950s and the early noughties—is fighting a varied bunch of rebels. Note that the government is largely dominated by secularized elements of the Shi'ite Alawite minority, who make up around 12% of the population; the majority are Sunni (74%), Christian (10%) and a variety of other sects.
If this sounds like the same sort of demographic split as Iraq, with Christians instead of Kurds, then give yourself a gold star: both "nations" were carved out of the bleeding carcass of the Ottoman Empire by France and the UK in the wake of the First World War under the auspices of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The UK and France had a lot of experience of running colonial empires, and had devised a recipe for establishing puppet states. You carved up the blank areas on the map, deliberately cutting across tribal/national boundaries, to establish zones with a 70/25/5 percentage split. The 70% majority were to be ruled and policed by representatives drawn from the 25% minority, armed with clubs and possibly rifles, while the 5% of imperial merchants and administrators enforced colonial rule over the 25%ers with machine guns and gunboats.
With the draw-down from empire, many of the 5% left; often a puppet monarchy would be left in power, but be deposed by a coup some few years later. The coup ideology would be attractive and post-colonial, and the coup plotters were the educated mid-ranking officers who had worked for the imperialists and now rose through the armed forces the former colonized nation. In some, it was Communism; in large chunks of the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya ...) it was Ba'athism or its close cousin Nasserism.
I'm going to tip-toe around the reasons for the Syrian civil war, not to mention the Arab Spring in general; I'm not an Arabist or Middle Eastern scholar, I'm just an interested layman. However, the point I'd like to make is that the demographic mix in Syria, as with the situation in Iraq, is ripe for civil war, ethnic cleansing, and (whisper it) genocide. It's the same shit-stinking mess we—the west—left all over Africa: the 70/25/5 split coming back to bite us. (You can see it in Rwanda, with the largely artificial Hutu/Tutsi split that descended into mass murder: in Zimbabwe, with the Shona/Ndebele split; and just about everywhere you look. Even, dare I say it, in the demographics of the Indian Empire as created by John Company—now split into India, Pakistan and the former East Pakistan, Bangladesh.)
Now, nerve gas is nasty stuff. But what was it doing there in the first place? I suspect the key answer can be found to the south-west, in the hulking Arab geopolitical spectre that is Israel. Israel has nuclear weapons. Nerve gas is the poor man's nuke. Presumably the Assad family's thinking was that, in the final contingency of a hot Israel/Syria war breaking out and escalating beyond control, they could threaten the Jewish settlers in the Golan Heights as a deterrent against Israeli use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Luckily for us, even such head-bangers as Hafez al-Assad, Benjamin Netenyahu, and Ariel Sharon were saner than Tony Blair (who managed to start five foreign expeditionary wars in his first six years in office, more than any other British Prime Minister ever). So that Syria/Israeli chem-nuke exchange never happened. Phew.
So: Rewind to 2010. We had an unstable dictatorship ripe for civil war, ruled by the relatively ineffectual younger son of a strong man. Bashar al-Assad was reputedly happiest when practicing as an opthalmic surgeon in London; only after the death of his elder brother Bassel in a car crash did his father Hafez designate him as his anointed successor, probably because the alternative—his brother Maher—was a hot-tempered thug. The Arab Spring breaks out all over, blood flows, and by-and-by the Arab Spring comes to Syria. Finally, in 2013, it is alleged that nerve gas (probably Sarin) has been used against the Rebel forces by the Syrian army.
Allegations are flying left and right; the Syrian government protests that the rebels used gas, the rebels say the government used gas, and nobody can get access to the bodies of the victims; this report from Medecins Sans Frontieres raises as many questions as it answers. Some of the more plausible speculation is that Maher al-Assad may have ordered the use of gas without authorization from above. But it's not impossible that the whole incident was a cock-up; with shells whizzing back and forth, and gas shells presumably stored where they could be used if needed, what is the probability that a nerve gas storage facility was inadvertently damaged?
But let's leave the right and wrong of it alone. It's horrendous stuff, and deliberate use of gas in war is a war crime, but assigning blame is something for the International Court in the Hague to untangle.
Here's the problem, as I see it: it's being used as a rallying cry to drag the US military—and the UK—into yet another colonial war in the Middle East.
If the USA and UK go down this route, we will end up killing innocent civilians. And not just a handful; we don't have the expertise to tell Syrian rebels from government loyalists. It's a civil war. They're fighting battles within built-up areas inside cities. Sending in the bombers will work about as well as it ever did (i.e. somewhere between "broke a lot of windows" and "killed a couple of million civilians who were minding their own business"). It won't solve the essential political problem, which is the legacy of the imperial 70/25/5 divide-and-conquer principle. If it does succeed in targeting the Syrian government forces to the point where the rebels emerge as victors, it may even be setting up the preconditions for anti-Alawaite pogroms and genocide.
Also, we'd be back to doing the same dumb thing for the third time in a decade. No current front-rank politician can have any excuse for being ignorant of the events in Iraq and Afghanistan; why are they now so eager to repeat them? It's not even as if Syria has any oil. (Oh, wait ...) Bombing people, far from preventing radicalization and terrorism, generates it; it's almost as if, seeing the engines of the war on terror running low on gas, some fiendish entity decided it was time to stoke the flames again. Why are we going here?
EDIT: There is one thing the West can do that would be unambiguously good. Also, cheap; and it wouldn't involve killing anyone.
Nerve agents like Sarin aren't black magic; they're close relatives of organophosphate insecticides. Medical treatments exist. In particular there's a gizmo called a NAAK, or Nerve Agent Antidote Kit. The drugs it relies on (neostigmine, atropine, and diazepam) are all more than fifty years old and dirt cheap; they won't save someone who has inhaled a high lethal dose, but they'll stabilize someone who's been exposed, hopefully for long enough to get them decontaminated and rush them to a hospital for long-term treatment. Mass Sarin attacks are survivable with prompt first aid and hospital support.
We should be distributing gas masks, field decontamination showers, NAAK kits, and medical resources to everyone in the conflict zones. Government, civilian, rebels, it doesn't matter. By doing so we would be providing aid that was (a) life-saving (b) cheap, and (c) put a thumb on the side of the balance in favour of whoever isn't using nerve gas. We'd also be breaking with the traditional pattern of western involvement in the region, which is to break shit and kill people, mostly innocent civilians who were trying to keep their heads down. It wouldn't fix our bloody-handed reputation, but it'd be a good start.