Ending Syria’s torment: what needs to be done?
The bodies were no longer there. Nonetheless pieces of brain, pools of blood and other human remains indicated that a massacre had taken place in the village of Qubair in Syria’s brutalised Hama province. The victims likely included children, according to eyewitness reports. The outrage was preceded by acts of venality and civilian slaughter in another village, Houla, just days before. Since that time there have been further outbreaks of killing, including a suspected massacre in Al-Haffa, the continuing violence forcing United Nations observers to suspend some of their activity.
The situation in Syria is intolerable. Even President Bashar Al-Assad has expressed his repulsion at some of the worst atrocities; referencing Houla, for example, he declared the massacre a crime that “even monsters would not have carried out.” Who could disagree? Yet such words of ostensible compassion appear suspect and disturbing given Assad’s credibly alleged responsibility for the very offences in question as well as a host of other abuses that stretch back the length of his rule, according to reports.
Having said that, Assad’s antagonists, the Free Syrian Army, are hardly paragons of virtue as Human Rights Watch have pointed out, in Spring citing “increasing evidence” that the rebels have committed “serious human rights abuses” themselves- including torture, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings. They also may have tried to get Channel Four’s Alex Thomson shot by government forces for propaganda purposes.
Forgetting the belligerents, something has to be done to bring an end to the hellish situation in the country – but what? The violence has continued now for well over a year, escalating in intensity, swallowing at the last estimate ten thousand lives, whilst the paralysed UN and Annan’s hopelessly violated “six point plan” have failed to bring succour to the Syrian people. It is reported that more than one and a half million people need aid. Amidst the murder and machinations, it is slowly becoming apparent that Syria is not only enduring a de facto civil war- it is also clear that the nation is suffering the birth-pangs of a fully-blown humanitarian crisis.
I asked the redoubtable Nick Cohen, a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, about whether a humanitarian intervention should take place in Syria. In his view, a solution involving the “US and NATO [co-operating] with the Turks and Arab League” to bring about an end to the fighting would be the most appropriate response, given that Syria was “not the same as Libya”. This would involve the provision of a “no fly zone and a safe zone for refugees” as per the wishes of the Syrian opposition.
Other viewpoints have been doing the rounds. One reputedly liberal political commentator, James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state to Bill Clinton, recently produced an interesting article entitled “The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria” in the prominent journal Foreign Affairs. He argued that America should give intervention a go- although, it seems, not only to save the lives of civilians. Rather, Rubin emphasizes the “strategic prize” of halting Iranian regional influence and preventing the realisation of Israel’s “real fear” about Iran – the US ally “losing its nuclear monopoly and therefore the ability to use its conventional forces at will throughout the Middle East”. (NB: Although Rubin clearly evinces his concern for Syrian lives – and I’m certainly not suggesting that he values some lives more than others – chiefly citing the interests of a third party as a part of the “real” reason to intervene in a country experiencing massacres is hardly a persuasive argument. There’s also roseate talk of an intervention being a “transformative event” in the region, something that sounds historically familiar.)
If a western intervention does occur, motivated by strategic interests or not, the outcomes would be wildly unpredictable. I emailed Noam Chomsky to ask his opinion about what should be done, knowing his criticism of the intervention in Libya. Chomsky replied that he would “defer to people who really know something about Syria” such as the commentators Jonathan Steele, Patrick Seale, and others. He added: “as far as I am aware, virtually everyone in that category thinks that military intervention would make a terrible situation worse.”
He may be right. Yet, an intervention in Syria does not have to be a Libya-style affair, involving a bombing campaign that results in heavy loss of life. It is regarded as one of Tony Blair’s great achievements to have, as some argue, been a decisive actor in halting the horrific crimes of the recently convicted international criminal Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone. Blair did this without any obvious strategic motive and, crucially, used the British military to back-up legitimate UN forces that were mobilised to protect civilians. As a result, Taylor could be tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and he rest of Taylor’s natural life will now be spent in prison. The ending of the war around in 2002 meant that children were no longer murdered or violently enjoined to kill, and pregnant women no longer had foetuses cut alive from their wombs for sport. That’s no small victory for justice.
Yet no two crises – or interventions – are the same, and some have contended that Blair’s operation in West Africa wasn’t as morally unambiguous as it seemed. Furthermore, NATO cannot back a Sierra Leone–style proactive peacekeeping operation so long as the Security Council remains divided and no UN force can be organised. Additionally, however awful he may be, Assad is no Charles Taylor – he enjoys far more support in Syria than many realise and assisting in his downfall with or without UN backing could divide the country, or even precipitate regional sectarian conflict.
Regardless of such torturous considerations, one has to hope that the international community will be able to organise an “ethical intervention” of a disinterested kind by providing expeditiously increased humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria – supplying food and medical supplies, for example – by whatever means.
As for the international politics at play around the crisis, the cynicism on display from several quarters may be breath-taking, but it is hardly a break with modern history as far as the wider region is concerned. Bitter realities abound. Just look at the Egyptian election right now- Tahrir Square might as well have never happened.Tagged in: Al-Haffa, Alex Thomson, Bashar Al-Assad, Charles Taylor, Free Syrian Army, Houla, human rights, iran, James Rubin, Jonathan Steele, military intervention, Nick Cohen, Patrick Seale, Qubair, slaughter, syria, tony blair, united nations
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