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A glance through the looking glass at the cradle of civilisation

The main current international news story, which any consumer of media will have noticed, is the ongoing civil war in Syria. The extent of the media coverage is sure to desensitise those following this intensifying and expanding conflict, which is becoming less and less internal as time ticks on. It may be worth visiting the subject in a broad way to gain bearings on the many issues that are playing out in a state whose capital, Damascus, is the oldest continually inhabited city on the planet.

What started as largely peaceful protests against the government, inspired by the Arab Spring movement, has descended into a brutal civil war that has enveloped the country and drawn interest from a plethora of interested actors. Most estimates of the current death toll are accelerating toward the 100,000 mark. Countless political prisoners remain incarcerated without trial with widespread accounts of extra-judicial killings, torture and systematic sexual violence. Men, women and children are all being targeted by both sides, with many more being fatally injured as a result of the ‘collateral damage’ of war. The world looks on aghast at ever more brutal scenes captured from videos inside Syria of cannibalism, now almost-daily massacres and the use and after effects of chemical weapons. The footage, we are informed, is impossible to verify.

To simplify, the civil war is essentially split along sectarian lines between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the former being represented by the pro-government minority and the latter constituting the majority of Syrians. These divisions also extend to the external actors in this real-life drama; Iran and Hezbollah support the government of Syria, whilst Sunni states such as Qatar and Turkey are arming and supporting the opposition struggle. This, however, is far from the whole story. Sunni Islamist groups, of which the al-Qaeda allied group Jabhat al-Nusra is both the most influential and famous, are making huge military inroads against the al-Assad government. They are joined, militarily but not ideologically, by other groups who make up the military opposition, most notably the Free Syrian Army. The government of Syria has at its disposal the military apparatus of the state including the infamous paramilitary group Shabiha, created in the 1980’s by Bashar al-Assad’s father for just this type of crisis.

As well as those states in the Middle East who have a military interest in the conflict, states such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq will be hoping for a swift peaceful resolution to the conflict in order to stem the tide of refugees fleeing what is fast becoming a failed state. Over 1.5 million Syrians have fled the country since the violence erupted and an estimated 4 million citizens are displaced within the confines of Syria’s borders. Israel watches from across the Golan Heights at a conflict which threatens to disrupt the already tenuous balancing act the Jewish state performs with the neighbours that surround it.

The international nature of the conflict will not have been lost on anyone with even the minutest interest in current affairs. The United States backs the opposition in its quest to topple the government. It has lifted an arms embargo on the opposition and is essentially indirectly arming the Free Syrian Army through its Sunni allies in the wider region. The U.S, along with its European and Middle Eastern allies, are keen to broker a United Nations backed resolution in order to end the conflict on their own terms. This plan has received staunch and predictable opposition from Russia who retain their consistent position of non-intervention in the affairs of other sovereign states. The elephant in the room is the Iranian Republic which remains staunch allies of what is referred to as ‘the regime’ by Western media. They are, as always, funding and arming the Hezbollah movement which is openly fighting on the side of al-Assad from its base in Lebanon.

The military situation inside Syria is fluid. One day the rebels force out pro-government troops from strategically key areas, only for the government to restore the status-quo the following day. As this tug-of-war continues, millions of lives are being put on hold whilst time ticks on. The prospect of normality returning to these victims of war anytime soon would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so catastrophically tragic. The reality is that, as anyone who understands the economic and psychological horrors of war will attest, the time for Syria to return to ‘normality’ will probably be measured in generations rather than years. Those who know about civil war will say that this route is typical for revolution yet those who understand a life of peace cannot imagine a destination that can justify such a horrifying journey.

So what is to be done? There is no easy choice to be made. The fact is that this conflict is bound to get worse before it gets better whatever decisions are made. To intervene or not to intervene appears the question but this is a very simplistic way of looking at the problem. It is a fact that intervention has already started in many different ways and for a variety of different motives, many of them amoral and self-interested as well as those based on humanitarian or moralistic reasoning.

There are those that support the arming of the opposition against what is portrayed as a brutal and, perhaps, even unhinged government that clings to power with both hands stained in the blood of ‘freedom fighters’. These ‘terrorists’ are said to be standing up for the majority of citizens in Syria who have long suffered at the hands of a regime who unashamedly redistributes wealth and opportunities, through neo-liberal reforms, into the hands of the minority Alawite elites. However, there are also those that believe that the violence in Syria is, however shocking and tragic, the obvious and intended result of a revolution which seeks to overthrow the legitimate government of Syria with the help of external actors who have an interest in the downfall of ‘the regime’ and the destabilisation of the state with its links to the Republic of Iran.

Certainly the problems of intervention are there for all to see. The territory is vast and the Western voters are certainly not in the mood to revisit this area of the world in another land offensive that will share many characteristics of the Second Gulf War of 2003. The mood for war has certainly been dented by a mistrust of the desires and motivations of politicians lobbied extensively by defence contractors and oil and gas conglomerates.

While many do question the motivations of those who are beginning to manufacture consent for an intervention in Syria, the issues surrounding humanitarian intervention are worth exploring. In fairness, in this case, we can be fairly sure that if one were to survey all the people in the world then most would agree that what is happening in Syria offends the very notion of what it means to be a human being. However, this is far from being a sole motivation for intervention. Nobody disputes the depravity of the crimes being committed by all belligerents in the conflict but was this not the case in the 26 year long Sri Lankan civil war? That war culminated in credibly alleged war crimes of the most heinous and systematic sort (see Channel 4’s 2009 documentary Sri Lankan Killing Fields for a shocking but comprehensive account of the end of that war). What about the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has been going on for at least 15 years, involves the outside intervention or interference of a multitude of African states and has been responsible for the deaths of more than 5 million people, 50 times the number of those that have perished in the Syrian conflict. Why intervene in one but not the other?

Perhaps the blanket news coverage of this war is the reason that many are now jumping on this runaway bandwagon to war. The coverage allows little nuance, the conflict is far too complicated to be easily compressed into digestible chunks for the consumers of modern mass media. We are to take sides in a good versus evil showdown, as always. But to view a foe in moralistic terms as evil is to allow oneself to degrade the humanity of the foe. Observers of a conflict must not allow themselves to take up the dangerous position on top of a humanitarian high-horse of viewing those they view as wrong as unworthy of understanding. They must be empathetic because it is almost impossible for those in the fog of war to be so. Everybody in this conflict is struggling for what they themselves believe in. Wars which are fought on moralistic grounds tend to become existential. An example is the World War Two struggles between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany where both armies vehemently believed that the other was genuinely evil. One must also consider the end game; what will happen to the innocent ‘losers’ of this war?

So, clearly, motivations are an issue. Other problems centre on the intervention strategy. Clearly after the Libyan intervention the obvious choice of intervention would be the implementation and enforcement of a no-fly zone. This amounts to a systematic destruction of a state air capabilities, usually achieved through the targeting of air bases, aircraft and air defences. This possible strategy has taken a setback recently with the sale of S-300 air defence missiles from the Russian Federation to Syria. One of the reasons Russia gave for not cancelling the contract with the Syrian government was that the cutting edge missile system would provide a useful deterrent for intervention in the conflict.

The stance taken by Russia, and incidentally China also, is a traditionally watertight position to take. It is not immoral but rather amoral; it takes no sides in the internal workings of individual states and makes no value-judgements. Russia regularly condemns the disrespect for state sovereignty shown by NATO when it intervenes in cases that the West categorise as intolerable. This seems a callous position but it seems to at least consider the huge costs in terms of life, liberty and treasure that a further escalation of the conflict will bring. The ‘red line’ use of chemical weapons has already been alleged by the E.U and recently accepted by the Obama administration. This points to a willingness to do almost anything in order to survive; this cornered animal must be on the ropes (pardon the confusion of metaphors) if it is willing to risk the wrath of the world’s only military superpower.

The stance of Russia and China is backed by international law. That said, intervention does have a long history especially when you are talking about the two hegemonic superpowers of the 20th century. The U.S and Great Britain view themselves as crusading defenders of human rights or, at least, that is what we are led to believe. After a long history of questionable interventions in some conflicts and even more questionable non-interventions in others, perhaps most notably during the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, the U.N is no closer to making clear the law or enforcing it against its most powerful members. The Charter calls for the self-determination of all peoples but does also warn against acts of aggression and the respect of sovereignty. It does enshrine the right for a state or a group of states to take military action against another or other states but this is only in cases of self-defence or collective defence.

The Responsibility to Protect initiative grounded in international law was established in 2005. It stated that:

  • A state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities;
  • The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility;
  • If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.

To clarify, this is not law; it is a norm. The establishment of the norm was in part due to the tardiness of the international community’s response to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide which led to the massacre of 500,000 people in just 100 days. Take a moment to appreciate how staggering those numbers are, they are a little baffling at first glance. It is this event, which also led to Africa’s Great War in the DRC, which haunts the world more than any other. There was no military intervention in this conflict between Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups. Perhaps the cold truth is that there was not much to gain for the West; the equation is a risk and reward based one rather than the kind of humanitarian reasoning that we are sometimes led to believe.

So one wonders why the West ought to act in Syria if it does not choose to act in every conflict. Clearly not much has changed since the days when states were morally permitted to truthfully justify their motives for intervention, except the rhetoric. Self-interest is the motive for war. Intervention is today the most palatable form of war for the masses to consume. Syria itself is now actually a net importer of crude oil and that may prove to be the deciding quantity that tips the equation toward non-intervention.

Michael Thomas

 

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