Syrian conflict – do nothing or do the wrong thing?

Syrian vote BBC reportDavid Cameron recalled parliament this week to seek approval for military intervention in Syria.  His motion was rejected, which has sparked a range of reactions – e.g. from people feeling proud to feeling ashamed of being British.  In a few days, Barack Obama is going to ask Congress to approve US military action.

Analytical psychology has a lot to offer this debate because it explains the conflict between the differing views and – more importantly – offers some hope for a constructive way ahead.

Oversimplifying the choices

There is a basic tendency of the human mind (consciousness) to discriminate between two polar opposites – e.g. good/evil, democracy/tyranny, warm/cold, friendly/aloof, etc.  Important decisions can often be dominated by a particular pair of opposites, depending on the individual’s background, circumstances, experience, training, relationships, allegiances, etc.  In the case of Syria, there are many dichotomies that are relevant to the debate:

  • Doing nothing or doing something.
  • Whether a military intervention would have a beneficial or detrimental impact on the innocent victims in Syria.
  • Acting democratically or against the will of the British people.
  • Working unilaterally or through the United Nations.
  • Whether action outside the United Nations is legal or illegal under international law.
  • Supporting the ‘special relationship’ with the United States or abandoning it.
  • David Cameron providing strong or weak leadership.
  • Ed Milliband playing politics or doing the right thing.
  • Taking action based on UN inspectors’ reports or relying on the evidence from one’s own intelligence services.
  • Whether military intervention is right or wrong in principle.
  • Etc.

This has created heated debate over Syria because different dichotomies dominate the thinking of different people. This can be seen in television debates where one person presents an argument based on their axis of opposites (e.g. “this is so terrible we must do something”), the next person uses a different one (e.g. “military intervention never makes anything better”), the first reverts to their preferred axis (“but it is immoral to do nothing”), and so on.

Most of the heat generated in the debate is due to the failure to acknowledge the different axes of argument.  As a result, the complexity of the argument is lost, and very little time is spent on finding a better alternative. This analysis is also suggested by Transactional Analysis (TA), which was created by Eric Berne.  TA couches the argument in different terms but makes a similar point: there is a tendency for people to discount other people’s views; and, in doing so, they fail to recognise that there is a wider range of options available.

A better option?

Jung’s theory suggests that, to make better progress in difficult situations such as this, we need to become less attached to our preferred pair of opposites.  This means, first of all, we have to recognise the nature of our own argument – i.e. that it is taking place on a particular axis. This can be hard, but the second stage is harder still – we have to refrain from arguing for one side or the other, which is known as ‘holding the tension of opposites’. This enables us to become more open to new, creative solutions that have not yet emerged. It also means listening to views that are most opposite and/or different to ours and accepting that there may be an element of truth in them.

In practical terms, for the Syrian problem, that means working through the United Nations and engaging in respectful dialogue with the likes of China, Russia, and Iran.  The counter-argument to this is that they are unlikely to listen – someone might say, for example, that Russia will support the Syrian regime no matter what happens.  However, Russia have collaborated with the Western nations in the past, allowing interventions in Libya for example.  The problem is that, in the West, we abused that collaboration.  The original UN mandate in Libya was limited to humanitarian intervention, but the Western nations stretched it somewhat to covertly support the rebels in their attempt to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi.  This destroyed any trust that the Russians had placed in us.


The recent vote in Parliament is a not a vote to do nothing, nor is it a vote to do the wrong thing (e.g. make a premature and ill-thought-out intervention).  It is the opportunity to improve international relations by searching for a ‘third thing’, a better solution to the problem of Syria which can only emerge through constructive dialogue with President Assad’s strongest international allies.  For that dialogue to succeed, however, it does require us to acknowledge certain mistakes and make every effort to rebuild trust.  Culturally, we may not yet be ready for that.

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