Syria: This Time, Fools Fear to Tread Where Angels Rush In

A good, blunt article just appeared in Slate pegging President Obama as seeing all war as politics by other means–even where that heuristic may be naive in practice.  For all his Liberalism in the divisive domestic policy questions of today, in matters of foreign policy President Obama is no humanitarian but a Realist. I prefer for foreign policy to be conducted through the prism of power rather than principle, but I make an exception in major cases of preventable violence. I consider establishing criteria and protocols for humanitarian intervention to prevent or halt genocide and (where possible) civil war violence to be among the most-important foreign policy business we can address. For that reason I applauded President Obama’s decision to support a coalition that toppled Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, and I support his decision–very late–to support the uprising against the Assad Family Regime in Syria.

But there are risks associated with this intervention, and I don’t mean Russian arms, the Hizballah militant faction, the prospect of a wider sectarian conflict in the region or even Syria’s large arsenal of chemical agents, forbidden by widely-accepted treaty. That risk is the prism through which President Obama probably views this intervention in the 1st place: Rather than see this civil war as both the Assad Family Regime and the Russians do–that is, as a zero-sum game over a strategic unit of Middle Eastern real estate–President Obama seems to view his decision to intervene in a transactional sense, as a gesture to demonstrate that President-for-life Bashar al-Assad and his Russian benefactors will have to accept a settlement with the Rebels in order to end the war.

I think that ship has sailed. Unlike when Sunni-sponsored terrorism begat Shi’a-led mass killing during the Iraq War (which Syria’s civil war may soon surpass in bloodiness in 1/5 the time), no external power is prepared to police the streets of Syria. It may be time to subdivide the lot.

After the Assad Family Regime’s brutal treatment of initially peaceful protests, the rump state seems literally at war with 1/2 of the country. In order to maintain the rump state, the Regime has decided to define the uprising in sectarian terms, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Syria’s religious minorities have no future other than under Regime protection. Trying to arrange a military stalemate to force all parties to come to the table to talk-out their differences could actually prolong the war, or even escalate it. If provisions of arms and other material assistance could bring moderates among the Rebels to the fore, and grant them victory, that would be best. If that is not possible and the uprising is now essentially sectarian and ethnic, then we could still do some good in intervening, as we did in Bosnia and Kosovo. But *partition* was the end result of those conflicts, and while it was far from an ideal situation, it *did* sustain the halt to slaughter, both times. Atrocities on a truly nationwide scale were replaced with more-localized injustices. We already assumed that this was not in Slobodan Milosevic’s interest in any way–nor in Russia’s. We didn’t negotiate to terms with either of them; we essentially destroyed Milosevic’s regime through repeated uses of military force and undermined Russian interests in the Balkan region. This incurred their outrage, but they could not regain what they had lost because it was built on the support of an autocracy that was overthrown in a state that was now fragmented.

We have to be prepared to truly take sides again. Equivocating between factions in a civil war could make things worse. This is a good case in politics (which is always about power wielded in the shadow of expectations) where motivations actually count.


2 thoughts on “Syria: This Time, Fools Fear to Tread Where Angels Rush In

  1. Brian

    I used to be an unabashed proponent of humanitarian intervention but now, I’m more circumspect. There are two fundamental weaknesses with the principle.

    The first is simple: nations almost never intervene abroad for purely humanitarian reasons. The reasons are almost always selfish. One can say, “Oh well who cares what their motives are so long as the outcome is good.” The problem is that when your motives aren’t humanitarian then, by definition, humanitarian principles are incidental to the mission (at best). Your decisions will be guided by other considerations, which may undermine the humanitarian component and cause more people to die than if nothing had been done.

    The second problem with ANY war is the law of unintended consequences, especially when you’re going in against the will of the government in place.

    The key principle of interventionism should be the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. Do not intervene unless it’s overwhelmingly clear that the situation will improve dramatically and quickly because of the intervention. If it’s causes tons more casualties just to move the needle a tiny bit, then don’t do it. There’s rarely an honest assessment like this. Usually, interveners overestimate their own capacity and underestimate resistance due to their poor knowledge of local conditions and culture.

    It’s too easy to get caught up with the rallying cry, “Something must be done.” That phrase is generic and it’s passive. In the real world, ‘something’ has to be specific and it must be done by someone(s) specific. “Something must be done” is often cried to make oneself feel better, without much regard for the potential consequences.

    It’s possible for humanitarian intervention to work: the UK in Sierra Leone and France in Mali are two examples. But in both cases, they were invited by the governments, not fighting against them.

  2. Brian

    And yes, I realize that limiting humanitarian interventions to cases where the indigenous government invites it is problematic. Maybe there’s an alternative that will work. But it is incumbent upon outsiders not to make the situation worse, just to assuage their conscience that they’re doing “something.”


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