If I could change one thing about the world, it would be to remove – permanently remove – the highly cultivated assumption of moral superiority from those who exhibit an ‘anti-war’ or non-interventionist position. I put ‘anti-war’ in scare quotes because, as we shall see, those who think this way are rarely as impartial or as principled in their opposition to armed conflict as their often high-minded rhetoric endeavours to suggest. As I write, a fascist regime is engaged in a systematic campaign of state terror against its own people. In case the implications of that sentence failed to fully detonate, let me rephrase it: as I write, a fascist state is employing its war machine in killing, torturing, and starving to death its own men, women and children, and it is doing so with impunity, in front of the eyes of the whole world. Despite it seeming obvious for a long time that only outside intervention can stem the gathering tide of slaughter, there are still many amongst our political and intellectual classes arguing that the worse thing – the very worst thing – the international community could do is to try to help these people in any way.
In the twelve months since the Syrian revolt began, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have gone from arresting, beating, torturing and shooting unarmed protesters – some as young as twelve or thirteen – to an all out military assault upon those areas of the country where the rebel Free Syrian Army have made gains and enjoyed popular support. Under the guise of putting down an armed insurrection by “terrorist groups”, the regime makes no distinction between combatant and civilian. Which is another way of saying they are terrorising for the sake of terror, believing they can definitively crush the uprising with massively disproportionate force. At the time of writing, the international community, in its unwillingness to move, shows every sign of tacitly helping the Ba’athist regime to make that gruesome belief a reality. For over a month the rebel held city of Homs was on the receiving end of sustained punishment, as Russian made tanks and artillery pounded the city non-stop. A fortnight ago the rebels were forced into a tactical retreat from the Babir Amr district of Homs, leaving the notorious 4th Armoured Division, commanded by Assad’s much-feared younger brother Maher al-Assad, to go (in their chilling words) “mopping up”. In order to go about this grisly work unimpeded by prying eyes, the regime spent days denying both the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos access to the stricken Babr Amr district. With a grim inevitability, the searing reports of atrocities that emerged from witnesses fleeing the shattered remains of the city were soon confirmed.
Assad’s father Hafez, who held Syria in his brutish fist since taking power in the 1970 Ba’athist military coup known as the “Corrective Revolution”, etched his own name in the atrocity handbook with the 1982 Hama massacre, a scorched-earth blitzkrieg against a previous Sunni uprising that is thought to have cost over 20,000 lives, the majority of these helpless civilians. Hard as it may be to credit now, when Bashir ascended the throne originally meant for his dead brother Bassel, the young leader was spoken of in some circles as a potentially reforming and liberalising kind of dictator. In the year since the current revolt began, Assad has shown himself to be in reality every bit his father’s son; that is, every bit as ruthless and every bit as capable of unleashing terror when his power is threatened by popular uprising. The death toll in Syria is already reckoned to have exceeded 8,000 souls. As many as 25,000 refugees may have fled the country in fear. In the absence of medical and military assistance, we can expect these numbers to rise dramatically. With Homs razed to the ground, Syrian forces are now gathering outside other rebel strongholds like Idlib and Deraa, presumably with a view to repeating the successful cleansing of Homs.
Given these facts, and the urgency of the situation on the ground, you will forgive my impatience with those whose words of condemnation are swiftly followed by a succession of qualifications as to why the world must, in effect, continue to let Assad slaughter with impunity. Most of these voices unite in telling us the situation is “difficult” and “complicated” as if that is saying something rather than nothing; as if difficulty or complexity can gloss or blur the reality of a fascist state terrorising its populace. Many of these voices go on to point out that the ethnic make-up of Syria is mixed: the Alawite Shia minority that Assad and up to 70% of the military high command hail from, along with Syria’s small percentage of Christians, have remained nervously loyal to the regime, fearing the consequences should the regime fall to the Sunni majority. Such fears are very real. However, it isn’t hard to see that the longer and more protracted this conflict, the more bloody and revengeful any eventual outcome is sure to be. The country is already in the process of implosion. That couldn’t be clearer. It seems to me the height of callousness to argue that we should leave the Syrians to their fate without an international presence of some sort.
Unfortunately for the Syrian people, the current occupant of the White House likes to conduct foreign policy by remote control, when he can be bothered to get involved in the outside world at all. Suffice to say, a president who was reluctant to get his hands dirty helping the Libyan people overthrow their hated dictator with a UN resolution, is not the sort of man who is likely to lend assistance to the suffering Syrians without one. With an election to fight, Obama is as likely to get involved in Syria as I am to run for president. U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made the Administration’s disinterest plain: it “doesn’t make sense” to intervene in Syria, he told the Senate recently, because to do so would be “unilateral”. Instead, we must build “an international consensus” before considering any such action. Yet it is hard to see how an intervention that would be supported by both Europe and the Arab world could be considered ‘unilateral’ in anything but the most absurd sense of the word. No one is even suggesting America invade Syria, or that it take action by itself. Any intervention in Syria would have to be an international operation. A coalition between Europe, the U.S. and certain Arab states could be easily assembled were there the will to do it. Humanitarian corridors north into Turkey and south into Lebanon could be greeting refugees, rather than landmines. Safe areas could conceivably be in place and under protection by now. A no-fly-zone of the kind that kept Saddam from murdering the Kurds of northern Iraq and the Shiites of the south, or that stopped Qhadafi from butchering in Benghazi, might even be operating. Humanitarian assistance might have saved the people of Homs. Were there the will to do it. Instead we let Syria bleed and bleed…
Waiting for an international consensus that is unlikely to come – due to the implacable support for the Assad regime by such notable defenders of liberty as Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba – is simply an excuse, and a poor one at that1, for the West to evade its responsibilities to the Syrian people, as well as a convenient way to avoid the obligations inherent in our nominal commitment to international norms of Human Rights. If we wait for Russia and China to come on board, as so many insist we must, we are as good as condemning untold numbers of Syrians to a death beyond imagining at the hands of their own government. If it really is your view that in the absence of Russian or Chinese permission the best thing the West could do is to allow that to happen, then you should at least have the decency to say so.
The betrayal goes deeper: UN special envoy Kofi Annan went all the way to Cairo to warn against intervention, saying he “hope[d] no one is thinking very seriously of using force in this situation,” because, “any further militarization will make the situation worse.” Worse? Casting my eye over the hollowed-out ruins of Homs, I find it hard to see how the situation, at least from the perspective of the Syrian people, could be worse. The humanitarian catastrophe Annan seems to envisage for the future is happening now, only it is the fascists and the communists that are intervening – and intervening on the side of the dictator at that – while the democratic world insists on doing nothing. Are Russian weapons and Iranian money not contributing to “further militarization”? When people speak of the danger of “escalating violence” and a “civil war” in Syria they seem to imply some form of moral equivalence between the rebels and the regime, as if there is little to tell between those who have risen up against a fascist state and a fascist state. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the escalator of violence in Syria is being purposely cranked by the bloody hands of the Ba’athists and their backers with the declared aim of maintaining a state of terror?
Needless to say, Assad couldn’t have been more pleased with Annan’s assurances, telling him when he got to Damascus that, “no political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability.” As if to prove Annan’s diplomatic mission couldn’t be any more detached from reality, his spokesman now tells us that despite leaving Syria with nothing more than an open promise that terror will continue, he feels his mission to be “on the right track.” To be fair to Annan, his utter ineffectiveness is but a dim reflection of the structural inefficiencies built into the lawful architecture of the United Nations itself. As a body constituted for the enforcement of international law it suffers from the same glaring flaw as its League of Nations predecessor; namely, it is only effective when there is a common interest among the great powers in its being effective. If one asks why Qhadafi is dead and Assad lives, at least part of the answer has to do with Qhadafi’s having ran out of powerful friends at the big table. Those who exult in the UN and believe it must have the final say on all international matters seem not to be able to acknowledge this flaw, and have rationalised the successive Russian and Chinese vetoes as a good enough reason to wash their hands clean of Syrian blood.
It is worth remembering that the UN Security Council was inaugurated in a world devastated by half a century of nation-state warfare. As such, its legal framework was built around the sanctity of state sovereignty, and was most concerned with the protection of member states from outside interference by other member states. In this aim it has been largely successful too: the sudden annexations by big-power invading armies that so blackened previous centuries have been largely unknown to our post-war world. According to the political scientist Mark Zacher, there have been only ten invasions resulting in minor border changes since 1945, and all of those occurred before 1975. (The exceptions tend to prove the rule – Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait was quickly repelled precisely because he had violated this sanction.) However, with large-scale cross-border invasion rare, the conflicts that do arise tend to be within states, in the shape of civil war and mass infringements of human rights. Here the jurisprudence of the UN shows its limitations badly: conflict resolution runs up against the sovereignty question and should the state in question happen to have powerful sponsors, nothing gets done.
In this sense the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is fundamentally at odds with the aims of the UN Charter. In order to stop gross violations of human rights, the protection of civilian populations ought to take legal precedence over notions of sovereignty. At the moment, however, the Security Council’s say is considered final. Condemnation from the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court may carry moral force, but it is only so much hot air while the higher court retains precedency. When is comes to the idea that the Security Council is the arbiter of what is and what isn’t internationally lawful, therefore, I find myself in agreement with historian Robert Conquest who reasoned that “too strong a devotion to the United Nations encourages acceptance of majority decisions by dubious regimes of a type indefensible in principle.” UN approval may be coveted as the ultimate badge of legality, but its failure to stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, paint a rather different picture of legitimacy, one where international law is far from set in stone, and in need of crucial reform.
The behaviour of the international community over the past few decades would seem to be in tacit agreement with this point: while the actions in Kuwait and Sierra Leone garnered UN approval,the intervention in Kosovo was undertaken without a resolution, and only ratified by the Security Council after the fact. Given this latter precedent, it seems to me futile to continue down the UN route with Syria. The moral case takes precedence over the legal one. Those who prattle high-mindedly about “dialogue” and “engagement” while the monster is already loosed upon the world are only helping to euphemise the bloody reality on the ground, and to repeat the mistakes of the Balkan conflict by assuming Assad is man with whom it is possible to peacefully negotiate. Bombs bought Milošević to the negotiating table, not words. Without even the credible threat of violence emanating from the international community, what possible reason could Assad have to stop his campaign of slaughter?
Is it possible to get revolution fatigue? The widely-felt euphoria accompanying last year’s eruption of Arab revolt has given way to a dark sense of resignation, as the liberal world has come to realise that revolution is a more difficult and altogether bloodier business than the speedy dispatch of the hated leaders in Tunisia and Egypt might have briefly suggested. It takes more than a Twitter account to take down a tyrant. The ramifications of the so-called “Arab Spring” will undoubtedly spit and sputter for years to come – its consequences are already giving shape and definition to our young decade. The revolution is far from over. This being so, we all have a stake in what happens to Syria. In a revolutionary situation, failure to help one side can amount to the same thing, morally as well as strategically, as helping the other. Yet nothing disturbs the frigid air of moral superiority surrounding those who maintain the illusion that they are always right, by insisting the West is always wrong, and so cannot and should not, intervene. The longer the the situation in Syria goes on, the worse it gets; the worse it gets, the more people argue it would be dangerous, even immoral, to intercede. I do not know if the Syrian people will get the help they so badly need. At the moment the signs are far from reassuring. In these dark days I wonder if it isn’t already too late. All I know for sure is that some of us sound serious in our opposition to tyranny, and some of us, to our shame, do not.
1The argument that an action is immoral or illegal if it is carried out unilaterally, and only moral or legal if carried out multilaterally, has never seemed to me to carry much force. The justness or unjustness of the use of force is not dependant upon how many countries take part. An action is not made more noble if there be ten countries taking part rather than one. In 1981, when the Israelis bombed the French built Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq, it was widely criticised on ‘unilateral’ grounds and condemned at the UN even by America and Britain. I think we can all be thankful that the Israelis chose to act ‘unilaterally’ at least on that occasion.