Although much satirised and reviled, The Guardian’s Opinion section last week trumped itself by gaining the curious accolade of playing host to a defence of war. The publication’s decision to publish an article by Russia’s Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, in which he defended Russia’s intervention in Syria, was almost immediately lambasted by commentator Iyad Al-Bagdadhi as complicity in ‘war-crime apologism’. In a Twitter post, he highlighted a parenthetical phrase in the article in which Yakovenko follows the Kremlin’s line that Russia is ready to “concede concrete evidence that our strikes have hit civilian targets” but that they “have so far seen none”.
Coupled with the strident tone particular to Russian politicians that permeates the article, this rhetoric does not even merit a raised eyebrow in the west, inured as we are to such bravado. For UAE exile Al-Bagdadhi, however, the fact of such a denial being circulated, being given a platform by a prestigious western newspaper with a readership numbering into the tens of millions is equivalent to giving Daesh a spot on a prime-time television channel. Both belligerents, in his eyes, are guilty of egregious war crimes that disregard the protections guaranteed to civilians under international law and ought to be treated with the same contempt.
But the fact of the matter is that Russia, unlike Daesh, is a heavily-armed world power which will play a substantial role in any final settlement that takes place in Syria. This is no ordinary conflict, and the stakes could not be higher. The abortive-uprising-turned-civil-war has turned Syria into a living hell and, since foreign intervention, only careful co-ordination and shared rules of engagement have prevented unintentional clashes between the US-led coalition and Russia. Should these lines of communication with Russia be severed, and Allied countries take unilateral action, like the much-discussed imposition of a no-fly zone? Up until now the war has been a fairly conventional proxy war constrained by national boundaries but it could spill over into an international conflagration of apocalyptic dimensions.
Such a threat calls for realpolitik and sang-froid, not impassioned moralism. The civilian media too has a duty to maintain a dialogue with those whom many hawkish commentators would construe as an abhorrent enemy beyond redemption. Without resorting to reductive relativism, it is simply true to say that most parties to this conflict are complicit to whatever degree in atrocities of greater or lesser magnitude. Europe, for example, has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s bloody repression of its Kurdish population in the south-east in return for measures to stem the flow of Syrian refugees making their way to Europe from Turkey. One incident, all but ignored by western media, reportedly saw 150 civilians burnt alive by Turkish security forces in a basement in Cizre. For this flagrant human-rights violation Turkey has been rewarded with promises of an accelerated accession to the EU.
None of this is to say that Russia and other powers ought not to be brought to justice for alleged war crimes – that much is beyond question – but to isolate voices that are straining to discuss and to marginalise them to channels nigh-explicitly dedicated to propaganda, is to demonstrate abject political naiveté. As the proverb about giving a man enough rope implies, such parenthetical denials, and feeling the need to make them, can themselves be read as confession. Far better to have a voice that seeks recognition than the ominous silence of irreconcilable enmity. Whether we like it or not, now more than ever we need to listen to what Russia has to say.
Image: Freedom House