To intervene or not to intervene. Among Syria’s neighbors, the question looms ever larger. Turkish talk of humanitarian corridors and the Red Cross’s pleas for access to Homs and other flashpoint cities is reminiscent of timid Western attempts at stemming the Bosnian civil war. In addition, the example of military intervention in Libya, which I opposed exactly a year ago and still do, as well as the Iraq war, although a different animal entirely, towers over the debate.
No one wants to stick their head into a hornet’s nest, as Western media more or less rightly portray Syria. You don’t mess with a patchwork of ethno-religious groups and not expect unexpected, i.e. unpleasant results. We have learned this the hard way. There is never a clear-cut case for intervention. But sometimes there are clear-cut reasons not to intervene, as the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq shows. To this day, the long black shadow of that disaster skews the debate in the sense that we forget the human imperative of stopping the slaughter of thousands, as is currently happening in Syria. The question is, how to go about this?
Again, Libya looms large as a how-not-to. One of the problems with the West, and certain Arab regimes’ intervention in Libya was that it was emphatically not a humanitarian action that happened to topple a dictator. Rather it was a regime change sold to skeptical western audiences as a humanitarian necessity. Let’s not forget that at the end of the day Libyan rebels, aided by NATO air power, received critical training and direct logistical and tactical support from Qatari boots on the ground. Not to mention arms. Lots of arms, which are currently causing havoc among local groups vying for influence and power as well as elsewhere in the region flooded with cheap hardware. In short, we fucked up. Kinda.
What’s the alternative then to letting thousands die at the hands of a brutal regime? Is there a middle-ground between respect for state sovereignty and intervention for humanitarian reasons? Is there a way, in other words, that sovereignty-spastics like Russia and China might be swayed in favor of protecting the lives of countless innocents? To a humanist, anything is better than doing absolutely squat all against slaughtering unarmed men, women, and children. To Russia and China anything -absolutely anything- is preferable to the mere idea of a well-armed bully rolling into their respective backyards or worse, and laying claim by military means to natural resources or the countries sitting on top. Hence their recent veto in the Security Council against sanctioning the Syrian regime. Again, the US adventure in Iraq has destroyed a lot more than that country’s infrastructure. Its diplomatic fall-out will likely hobble the cause of not-killing-folks for years to come.
Again, what then? How do we stop the butchering? The answer perhaps lies in the question itself. The main goal as well as the extent of any action or mediation should be to stop the killing. Nothing short of it and nothing more. Bearing in mind Western duplicity in its handling of Libya, talking protection but gunning for the regime, it might be difficult to convince opponents of intervention of the veracity of such a mandate. Yet it is a course that must be pursued nonetheless. In essence, the international community should devise a way to grind the war down to a non-combative stalemate. For example one would prohibit Assad’s regime from continuing to commit wide scale atrocities, but also inhibit a hurriedly armed disparate group of non-professional opposition fighters to become a security threat themselves as we are currently witnessing in Libya.
Needless to say bringing about and enforcing such a stalemate is easier said than done. The Arab League’s observer mission was a good albeit timid start. Diplomacy should work to identify and propose a quid-pro-quo to the Russians who might be able to induce the Syrian regime into accepting a new, expanded observer mission. Trucking in food and medical supplies, hardly a threat to the government’s hold on power, nonetheless increases a perceived outsider presence, a psychological factor that should not be underestimated. Bearing in mind the atrocities that occurred in UN-patrolled Bosnia, one shivers to imagine what might have happened had we turned the other way entirely. In short, quixotic as it might seem, an unarmed outsider presence, in any shape or form, and the diplomatic pressure to maintain it, should be the lodestar of interventionist thinking as the court of global public opinion is increasingly complemented by actual international court rooms.
Of course, unarmed observers, truck drivers, journalists, and medical personnel are a vulnerable asset. Pressuring a regime into protecting them, or at least not outright shooting at them, is alas, a lot more easily achieved, given all permanent UN Security Council members are on board, than having them not shoot its own civilians. It follows that the mere presence of said observers, truckers, journos and medics becomes an impediment to all-out war. With Syria’s death toll creeping up to 10.000, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. But until there are people trapped still in Homs and elsewhere any opportunity, however tenuous, is worth considering.
Whether a regime is able to provide for its people and if not, how it might be changed, is really not in the purview of other regimes, be they democratic or otherwise. Full stop. The international community however has a duty to prevent the deaths of thousands of civilians, be they a victim of a natural disaster or the wrath of authority.