Saturday, April 2, 2011

Washington and the Question of Syria

Over the past two weeks Americans have witnessed an increase of hawkish rhetoric against Syria and President Assad. Elliott Abrams argued in the Washington Post that the Obama administration should politically squeeze Assad. His appeal was selectively smart enough to be frightening. But politics are what they are and Washington's actions in the Middle East are ultimately guided by a certain kind of politics. Agreed. Nevertheless politics are more than self interest. There are actually norms that exist in the world in the form of international law. These may be unreliable and politicized but they do exist. Politics are also guided by reason. Reputation is very important if a country wishes to be a hegemon. Any country's political and economic relationships are also constraining. And while emotions may be restrained, they are always going to be present because we are, after all, human beings.

However yesterday the normally admirable Los Angeles Times published a perplexing article about the Obama Administration's inability to clearly explain why the United States is not militarily intervening in Syria that was so narrowly based on a distorted vision of self interest that it completely misses the mark. What is even happening in Syria? Only very recently have small protests across several Syrian cities erupted and which yes, have been brutally repressed. But these protests so far are anything but popular. Syria is a country of around 21 million and perhaps several thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the government while tens or hundreds of thousands have protested for the government. This week President Assad did make a grave error when he delivered an undignified speech that refused to recognize the legitimate grievances of the Syrian peoples, likening the protests to a foreign plot. So yes, this is yet another example of an Arab leader treating his people with paternalism and a lack of respect and should be criticized as such.

However why in the world would the Los Angeles Times take seriously the question of a military intervention in Syria? What reasonable person is proposing such action? Especially when the article does not pose any questions about why the United States has not intervened in Bahrain and Yemen where ongoing protests have been wide scale and the violent response has been equally (if not more) repugnant? Perhaps the assumption is that these regimes are American allies and so of course the United States would not intervene. This is of course a double standard but also expected.

But what is deeply problematic is not only the newspaper's posing of this unrealistic question but also the subsequent discussion, which focuses only on America's national interests and an uninformed conception of these interests at best. Anybody who follows recent precedents in international law will know about the Responsibility to Protect, a controversial doctrine that rationalizes international intervention if certain criteria are met. As Garreth Evans and Mohamed Sahoun lay out in Foreign Affairs (2002) the conditions of a so-called just intervention are:

1. The large-scale loss of life, actual or anticipated, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product of deliberate state action. Also included here is the threat of state collapse.
2. All other options have been exhausted, including diplomacy, sanctions etc.
3. Proportional means of action are taken.
4. There are reasonable prospects for success.

While some of these criteria are debatable in the case of Libya, arguably they can all apply in some way. Whereas absolutely none apply to Syria. Period. I am not a fan of military intervention anywhere, but one must recognize that intervention in Libya was at least understandable, if not justified.

Furthermore, the article does not adequately address any of the following key points:

1. Colonel Qaddafi was waging a military campaign against the rebels. This is not the case in Syria.
2. The Libyan rebels successfully secured Libya's second largest city that has a population of around one million who were at risk of being attacked. Protests in Syria have been small and hundreds of thousands of civilians are not at risk of attack.
3. Many thousands of refugees were created by the conflict in Libya. This is definitely not the case in Syria where mass exits have not occurred. In fact, Syria educates and takes care of millions of refugees from other countries, notably Iraq and Palestine. This unspoken fact really upsets me. Syria, a country of minimal resources, takes care of around one and a half million Iraqi refugees according to Amnesty International, and all because of a war the United States instigated. This humanitarian gesture is enormous and it kills me that it continues to go unrecognized by the American people.
4. And most importantly, the Libyan opposition is thought to represent a sizable percentage of Libyans and they asked for an international intervention, a call which was also supported by the Arab League. The anti-government protesters in Syria are far outnumbered by the pro-Assad demonstrators and have not requested outside help. Neither have neighboring countries.

Considering the above, one is totally perplexed by the uncontextualized comment the Los Angeles Times concludes with. Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and advisor to Obama during the 2008 election, actually suggests that “there isn't anything that really separates what's happening in Libya from what's happening in Syria — nothing at all.” Huh?

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