Syria: The Case For Intervention

Syria independence flag flies over a large pathering of protesters in Idlib.

Following up from my previous post, I did some more thinking on the topic of the Syrian War. But I realize that I only offered a very diffuse justification for intervening in this conflict that has long since entered its third year. Let me be absolutely clear: In an ideal world, we could all have faith in the fact that nation-states could regulate themselves, rendering the principle of sovereignty paramount and the need for outside intervention moot. But this is not an ideal world – the repercussions of one conflict on the other side of the world can come back to haunt us in the most tragic way possible.

In a world of 365/24/7-media coverage, we cannot just lean back, watch the carnage and then turn around and say to our loved ones: “That is truly tragic – but there is nothing that can be done”. Wrong, there is always something that can be done. We always have an option. The world can always act, when it wants to. There are so many disputes, conflicts, wars, emergencies and tragedies across the world that sceptics will naturally raise the question: “Why Syria?”. The answer is as complex as the origins of this civil war. The upshot of my reflections is simple: We cannot afford to ignore this conflict any longer. Intervention is in the very best interest of the countries belonging to the North Atlantic Alliance and (by the way) the entire Middle East as well.

The Syrian Crisis is becoming an ever-increasing embarrassment for the United Nations and a potential security & terrorism nightmare for Western countries. Except that no one is willing to take decisive action. And by failing to do so, we’re causing the very thing we profess to fear the most: genocide, Syria being depopulated, endless (and fruitless) negotiations whilst the warring parties create facts on the ground – and yet more proof for an ill-placed pacifism in the West that serves absolutely no one.

Now it seems that one of the parties to the civil war has overplayed its hand: whilst it is commonly assumed that it was the Assad regime, Iraq teaches us that it is vital not to jump to conclusions about the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially when it comes to the culpability of a party.

The Origins of the Conflict

Originally rooted in the ill-fated Arab Spring, the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad was fundamentally about the democratic participation of the Syrian people. This becomes especially interesting against the ethnic, religious and historical background of the Republic of Syria – with the Assad regime just being the continuation of a tragic culmination of the stormy years of pan-Arabic aspirations (as effectively articulated by President Gamal abdel Nasser of Egypt). Syria is, demographically speaking, a principally Sunni-Muslim country (74%), with Shias next (13%), followed by the Christian and Druze communities (at 10 and 3%, respectively). Amongst the Shia community, one can also find the Alawites, the dominant group in politics and the military during the Assad era.

All in the Family

Having started out as a nascent monarchy under the Hashemites (incidentally the same royal family that governs Jordan and used to rule Iraq until the takeover of the Baath Party), followed (after its defeat in the 1948 War against Israel) by years of republican instability and successive coups. With the merger of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic in 1958, things didn’t get any better – permanent tensions between the two constituent units ultimately led to Syria’s withdrawal from the union and renewed instability that was ended with the 1966 military coup that brought the Baath Party’s Syrian branch to power in Damascus. The new government’s handling of the 1967 War against Israel and disagreements over Syria’s relationship with the PLO then led to an intra-party coup that led to the ascendance of Hafez al-Assad as President. Sound familiar? It’s because he was Bashar al-Assad’s father.

Even though (unlike his Iraqi counterpart Saddam Hussein), Al-Assad senior did not often dress in fatigues, he had risen through the ranks of the Syrian military after growing up in a poor Alawite family.  The elder Assad governed Syria with an iron fist, brutally suppressing Islamist opposition to his rule, going to war against Israel for a third time in 1973 and effectively invading Lebanon during that country’s tragic and senseless civil war. On the pro-Western ledger, he did assist with the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi soldiers during the 1991 Gulf War. With the Cold War ending and the generous coffers of the former Soviet Union falling shut, the Assad regime even decided to speak to its archenemy, Israel, about a return of the Golan Heights (captured by Israel in the 1967 War) and the conclusion of a formal peace treaty. At the time, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Egypt had already fallen into the pro-peace camp and were pursuing talks with the erstwhile adversary. However, those Syrian-Israeli talks (mediated by the United States) failed during the twilight of the Ehud Barak cabinet in Israel. Hafez al-Assad died shortly thereafter, in June 2000.

The Son Also Rises

Dynastic succession ensued, and Bashar al-Assad was elected President in October 2000 in a national referendum (of course, with no opposition whatsoever, and a score of 97.2% of all votes cast) – but only after Syria’s Parliament decided to amend the constitution to lower the age limit to 34 years – Bashar’s age at the time. Assad junior heralded the promise of a new era in Syria’s political life: An ophtamologist by training, he was (in the mould of India’s Rajiv Gandhi, one might say) perceived as the reluctant dynastic successor. Equipped with a telegenic, fashionable First Lady and young children, the new President was the stuff of Western diplomats’ dreams. Tentative steps were taken: political prisoners were released, market liberalization (stepping away from the erstwhile socialist economic system) was introduced and civic activism (particularly in the form of political salons) was tacitly accepted. Intellectuals demanded multiparty democracy, free elections and the end of the state of emergency (in force since 1963). This brief period was known as the “Damascus Spring”, raising hopes of a 1989-style tide of change in the Middle East. But power politics intervened: the young Assad was not universally loved by his own party or the military – instead of forging ahead with reform and letting the chips fall where they might, he chose political expediency. The Syrian regime resumed “normal service” from 2002 onwards, brutally repressing opposition to it, with the only thing left in place from the Damascus Spring period being the economic reforms.

No Valentine for the West

Whilst disappointment was expressed about renewed internal repression by Western governments, they continued courting the Assad regime – maybe in the hope of reaching a grand bargain that could see a resolution of the perennial Middle East conflict, maybe in order to not further destabilize the country in the wake of the disastrous misadventure that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Either way, only lip service was paid to political reform in Syria. Meanwhile, it’s not as if the Syrians sent a diplomatic valentine to their  colleagues in the West. Au contraire, the Assad administration continued their very own misadventure, also known as Lebanon – culminating in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut. This, in turn, led to the Cedar Revolution, the withdrawal of Syrian troops and legal proceedings before the UN-authorized Special Tribunal for Lebanon that last to this day. Syria, despite being diplomatically more successful, forged an alliance with the perma-ecclesiastical administration in Teheran – as expressed in its support for the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon (something that would come in quite handy for Bashar al-Assad in 2013). Meanwhile, governments in the West kept pinning their hopes and the al-Assad magic certainly made an impression on glossy magazines in the United States as well.

Missed Opportunity

Which brings us to the turning point in 2011: With Tunisia and Egypt having opted for messy transitions, Bashar al-Assad suddenly faced a crossroads when faced with the prospect of protests within his realm. He could have broken with the Baath Party system and announced far-reaching reforms, opened up the media and released the stranglehold of the intelligence service on his country. Given the lack of credible opposition alternatives, it is quite probable that he would have actually won a free and fair election shortly thereafter. More crucially, however, Western governments were still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. A transition could thus have been organized quite smoothly, maybe à la Yeltsin in 1999, with the (financial) interests of the Assad family being protected from confiscation – in exchange for the Assads withdrawing to private life, maybe back in London (First Lady Asma al-Assad is a dual British-Syrian citizen).  Effectively, Bashar al-Assad could have cut his losses, realized that the game was up and organized his own departure and, frankly financial and judicial immunity from future prosecution by a succeeding Syrian government (Baath Party-led or not).

He missed that opportunity. Instead, Mr Assad chose bloodshed. He had his armed forces fire upon unarmed, peaceful protestors, characterized the latter as “terrorists” and had their strongholds (like Homs, his wife’s hometown) shelled into oblivion. But in lieu of capitulation, the splintered Syrian opposition – inspired by the Arab Spring and maybe by the bloody end of the Gaddhafi government in Libya – decided to fight back. But just like in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Egypt and Afghanistan, the opposition movement is anything but monolithic – with liberal intellectuals, Free Syrian Army fighters and the Al Qaida-inspired, extremist al-Nusra front all fighting President Assad. And that brings us to this point: peace overtures to the Assad regime have failed, not the least because Russia and China have placed all their bets on the survival of the regime. In the meantime, the United States, the European Union (and especially the United Kingdom and France) are bumbling along, humming and hawing about supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels à la Libya.

In the meantime, Turkey and Lebanon have already become part of the perimeter of the Syrian War – it is plausible to argue that only measured diplomacy prevented Turkey from staging an incursion or even an invasion of Syria. The death toll of the war, according to the United Nations, has now exceeded 100,000 casualties – and it’s rising with every single bombing, chemical weapons attack and air raid. States like Syria, Qatar and Iran are also joining in on the action, supplying weapons and (in some cases) enthusiastic personnel for their respective sides. Consequently, Syria is increasingly becoming New Lebanon – with incalculable consequences. The world is watching, and there seems to be no way out of the bloodshed – not yet, anyway.

What needs to be done – and soon

Syria is turning into a slaughterhouse. The fighting is descending into massacres along religious lines. This is an alarming sign.

An envisaged peace conference with the participation of the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition is going nowhere, and even the United Nations Secretary-General has conceded the Organization’s complete inability to stop the fighting. The Security Council has been paralysed through inaction and gridlock – especially on part of Russia and China. The number of refugees to neighbouring countries is rising, with 1.8 million having been registered (or awaiting formal registration) as refugees. The United Nations projects this number to grow to 3.5 million.

Let’s pause for a moment – that corresponds to 16.8% of a pre-war population of 20.82 million citizens. Neighbouring countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are left to absorb those numbers. The likelihood of further destabilization in the region is high, especially as many of those countries are going through internal crises or a phase of near-vitriolic political debate themselves. Add to that another 4.25 million internally displaced persons – the combined total of 7.75 million is equivalent to 37.22% of the nation’s population. If that’s not a humanitarian catastrophe in the making, then I don’t know what is.  Commitments by donor countries have been woefully short

Saying Farewell to False Assumptions

But there can be, once Western countries draw the right conclusions from the Iraq War and don’t withdraw into isolationism abroad. “Leading from behind” is not an option in a situation in which terrorist groups hold sway and President Assad is nothing more than just another warlord in this war. But before that can happen, we need to say farewell to a number of false assumptions that have held sway since the twilight years of the ill-fated Bush Administration.

“After Iraq, haven’t we had enough?”: First of all, pretty much all respected legal scholars seem to agree that Iraq was quite simply an illegal war, launched on false pretenses and with varying justifications. On Monday, it was removing Saddam – on Tuesday, it was weapons of mass destruction – on Wednesday, it was creating democracy in a barren civic wasteland, and so on. What was worse, though, was the high-handedness of the White House and (especially) the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: from insulting long-standing allies as “old Europe” to stating Britain (whose government teetered on the brink of political collapse) wasn’t really needed for the war effort (factually correct as it was), Rumsfeld quite simply lacked the diplomatic acumen to bring people on his cause’s side. However, the biggest cardinal sin of the American war effort was utter arrogance and incompetence on part of those high-minded neo-conservative policy wonks (who give genuine conservative thinkers a bad name, but that’s another topic altogether): They actually believed that the United States would be greeted as liberators, authorized the dismissal of the entire Iraqi Army and failed to impose law and order on Day 1. The lawlessness and the vacuum in terms of authority sent a fatal signal to Iraqis, namely that the United States was only out for itself. In its desire to quickly end the war, it forgot to plan the peace properly. A task that took 10 years in Germany (from the minute our country was liberated from the Nazi regime to the day West Germany resumed its sovereignty as a country in 1955) was supposed to be accomplished in only 12-18 months in Iraq. Clearly, Rumsfeld and his allies on Capitol Hill completely misjudged and misread the potential for pitfalls from the get-go. Not only that, they quite simply lacked the cultural and historical expertise necessary to realize that you can’t just walk into a foreign country in the Middle East and expect to administrate it like a beaten, post-war Germany that had been decimated, defeated and run into the ground by Hitler and his cronies. That said, Iraq doesn’t negate the need or even the feasibility for decisive, robust military interventions against near-genocidal dictators elsewhere. President Bush has left a complete shambles behind in so many areas, but his biggest failure might have been to blacken the concept of military force in the eyes of the general public post-Iraq.

“Giving weapons to the rebels, as Britain and France are suggesting will be a good idea, no?”: I can’t actually believe that two responsible leaders like David Cameron and Francois Hollande would even be drawn into this sort of foolish scheme to arm people we quite simply don’t know. And what’s more, haven’t we learnt a single thing from arming our future adversaries and enemies in Iraq (Saddam in the Iran/Iraq War) and Afghanistan (the mujahedeen, a prominent member of whom was a certain Osama bin Laden)? As soon as we provide weapons to unknowns, we basically relinquish control over their usage. In the fog of war, it’s hard enough to verify whether and how chemical weapons were used. Imagine the logistical nightmare of trying to keep the rag-tag coalition of Syrian opposition groups in line. And that’s leaving aside the fact that the amalgam of ideological different groups are not necessarily first-rate democrats. This is the kind of stupid and downright myopic idea that may accelerate losses in Syria, cause an even bigger agony amongst the civilian population and expose us to accusations of profiteering. Yes, exactly what we want in this charged diplomatic climate – not.

The whole concept of arming the rebels also assumes a central premise: that we can trust them. Fact is, we probably can’t. We don’t know what they stand for, what positions they take towards the Western world, and our allies (including Israel and the Palestinian conflict) and what kind of future they want for Syria. And even if we somehow managed to ignore all of that, they aren’t even united. If we do commit the foolish mistake of supplying weapons to them, they’re likely to win against Assad and turn on each other in an even bloodier phase of the Syrian Civil War. The most organized faction is likely to win – it would appear at this time that the likes of the extremist Al-Nusra front would be most likely to emerge victorious. They’re motivated, committed to their goal (the establishment of a theocratic state based on religion alone) and ruthless. Just like the Taleban.

“This is an internal Syrian conflict. The principle of non-intervention and national sovereignty necessitates that we don’t intervene. Especially in the Middle East, we gotta stay out of this. And anyway, why should OUR men and women in uniform go to die in some foreign land where we have no particular national interest?”: False. Far from being an internal conflict, the Syrian War has always been international in nature. Inspired by uprisings across the Arab world, the Syrian opposition has been supported by Qatar and Saudi-Arabia. On the other side of the divide, the Assad regime is being backed up by China, Russia and Iran. Iran-backed Hezbollah supplied soldiers for the Syrian government, which helped the latter to win back the town of Kusehr in a bloody battle.

In fact, it appears from the that the tide is turning for the Assad regime. This is nothing but a fatal signal for the United States, the European Union and – by implication – the North Atlantic Alliance – as long as you have the backing of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, you can be a near-genocidal dictator (and yes, I’m aware that I’m using this term quite loosely, rather than invoking its more circumscribed legal meaning) and get away with it. Is this what “hope and change” looks like? You bet that the Arab Spring would soon turn into an Arab Ice Age, with each potential strongman thinking to himself that he could just about pull through à la Assad. Let’s face it, the United Nations is weak, paralyzed through fear and positively sclerotic in its diplomatic mechanisms.

As for the argument that action in Syria does not serve our national interest, whether in Europe, Canada or the United States – think again. The Middle East has already taken up an inordinate (and compared to suffering elsewhere – for instance, in the Congo War or the killing fields of Darfur) amount of the world community’s diplomatic energy. A broken and completely wrecked Syria would not exactly offer the best guarantee for a comprehensive peace agreement or even a Cold War-like status quo between it, Lebanon and Israel. And the weaker state authority gets in Syria, the more the country will devolve into factions and warlords à la Somalia or Afghanistan.

Who can guarantee that extremist fanatics or terrorists won’t be able to carve out their very own mini-state, a launching pad for future terrorist attacks against Western countries. Turkey being destabilized through waves of Syrian refugees is not in our interest either, especially as their presence may well become the spark that sets off a host of problems the surface of which has not even been scratched by the Gezeh Park protests in May/June. And let’s assume for a minute that the Syrian National Coalition does keep it together (and that’s one big assumption to make): Don’t you think that the lure of democracy may at some point in the future bring about the clamour to retake the Golan Heights from Israel? Or re-occupy Lebanon? That in a game of who can look the toughest in front of an electorate that doesn’t really know real democracy (since they’ve been denied it since independence in the 1930s), horrible miscalculations might be made that could lead to a wider war? Preventing such a conflict is very much in our interests.

Three Goals

It’s time to intervene in Syria – letting the slaughter of tens of thousands continue is unconscionable, indecent and downright derelict of our responsibilities as members of the wider international community. Am I talking about a full-scale occupation à la Iraq? No. I’m talking about a time-limited mission with a clear exit strategy, with these three paramount goals:

  • End the bloodshed of civilians and enable them to return home to their communities within a reasonable timeframe, whilst tending to their care in the interim – especially via support of refugees and internally displaced persons.
  • Put Bashar al-Assad and military commanders on both sides of the conflict on trial before the International Criminal Court. Libya and Iraq have shown that a fair trial of suspects in such conflicts cannot be guaranteed in transitional environments. Saddam Hussein (no matter how much one might have despised him) deserved a fair trial, and received a kangaroo court instead. Muammar Gaddhafi was shot by the rebels, and his son has (despite promises) never been extradited to the ICC. A travesty at best, and a slap in the face of these despots’ true victims. As for Syria: Transferring Assad and alleged war criminals to The Hague offers the safest and clearest way for true justice to be administered. I will address the legal issues surrounding Mr Assad’s trial a little bit later in this article. Incidentally, an Assad trial would also give the ICC a much-needed lease of life. This could only be good news for the international community at large.
  • Create the conditions for Syrian society to start healing and for a democratically elected, new Syrian government to become a full member of the international community. Ensure electricity, clean water and security infrastructure for Syrians to thrive.  Provide the economic assistance required for the new Syria to start emerging as a mid-sized economy in the Middle East again.

Legality and Reality

Would action by the United States and its allies be legal? International law is in flux, with the last word not having been spoken on the issue of using force to protect civilian populations. Moreover, the United Nations Charter, whilst envisaging the United Nations Security Council as retaining the final say on issues of war and peace, makes no express provision for the event of the Council being deadlocked. Russia and China have been obstructing any attempt to reach a consensus on action in Syria, vetoing every single contentious resolution on the issues and (arguably) making the crisis worse by not immediately suppressing the Syrian regime’s campaign of relentless warfare against forces opposing the rule of the Assads. Through their deliberate abuse of their respective veto powers, these two countries have made themselves accomplices to the Assad regime. Their neutrality, and impartial ability to judge the Syrian situation thus has to be doubted.  The diplomatic route has been tried, time and again – offers of peace were answered by canisters of nerve gas and bombing raids on civilian areas. Given these exceptional circumstances, whilst considering the strategic importance of Syria and the plight suffered by thousands (at the hands of  regime and opposition forces alike), one can argue that the United Nations is no longer capable of fulfilling its duties under the Charter. Thus, it falls upon individual member states to protect the spirit of the Charter. Given the internationalization of the Syrian conflict (in Lebanon, for instance – and waves of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries), this is no longer an internal affair of the Republic of Syria. Given the current recalcitrance of the Chinese and Russian governments, Articles 42 and 44 of the Charter can’t become effective.

For the world not to act against the slaughter of civilians in Syria, especially after the delayed reaction in Bosnia, the complete failure of the Organization in Rwanda and its ineffectual response in Kosovo, would directly run counter to the purposes of the United Nations outlined in Article 1 of the Charter: “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace“. The military intervention in Syria now being seriously contemplated by the United States would be a welcome and overdue step towards setting things right in a civil war that has become a humanitarian catastrophe. Critics of the United States approach in this matter need to understand that law (even international law) is a reflection of its times. The United Nations Charter was drafted in a time of world peace having been shattered by Nazi aggression in Europe and Imperial Japanese forces wreaking havoc in Asia. Today, the United Nations is riven by division and incapable of getting things done.

If anything, military action in Syria (and putting an end to both Assad and the opposition forces) is necessary, just and right.

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