Jackson Doughart
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On Syria: A case for intervention

Embassy News, 15 April 2013

The so-called realist assertion that countries have no role to play in each other’s affairs is undoubtedly a legitimate point of view, supported by a long diplomatic tradition. That people of this persuasion oppose intervention in Syria’s ongoing civil war is no surprise. What is surprising is that on the same question, so many liberal internationalists share the same view that allowing the carnage to continue is acceptable. There is indeed little appetite for Western involvement in yet another Middle Eastern country, given the failure of the Iraq War to produce a stable successor state to Saddam Hussein, and the creation of an Islamist-oriented government in Libya that was directly aided by the NATO-led use of force against Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. But unpopularity is not an argument, and the fact that the consensus favours non-intervention does not necessarily mean that it is the right answer to a real problem.

Though the ultimate decision would be taken by the United States and perhaps by major European countries, there is every reason for Canadian policymakers to support military action and to commit Canadian forces to an assisting role in such a mission. The Canadian government can help to advocate such a policy on the grounds of humanitarian intervention, which are many and convincing.

It must first be acknowledged, though, that there are no good guys in the Syrian conflict, at least among the combatting factions. Bashar al-Assad is the head of a brutal dictatorship, armed with weapons of mass destruction, that is prepared to do anything to hold on to power. His opposition, the Free Syrian Army, employs indiscriminate force and has no intention of advancing democracy. Though the group has claimed that there will be no reprisals if it ousts Assad, it is probable that the Alawi minority is destined for slaughter if a new regime—probably Sunni fundamentalist in character—takes control.

However, there is every reason to affirm that the consequences of this conflict involve other states in the Middle East. Neighbouring countries, including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, have already been flooded with refugees seeking asylum—a problem that will most certainly continue once this leg of the war ends. And just as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda brought spillover violence to Burundi and Congo, the same possibility strongly exists in Syria, especially given the weakness of its Eastern neighbour. The maintenance of regional stability is unquestionably threatened by the continuation of the war. The collapse of the Assad regime will leave chemical and biological weapons, of whose possession the government has acknowledged, up for grabs. Can it really be said that these factors are none of our business?

The most important factor, of course, is the humanitarian disaster unravelling before the eyes of Western onlookers to seemingly no effect. While a familiar response is that intervention will just create a catastrophe, there already is a catastrophe that could have been averted if the West had intervened sooner. The Shia Muslim and Christian minorities, which two years ago demonstrated against the authoritarian government of Assad, now depend on his unlikely victory for the security of their own future, which may otherwise be filled with persecution.

If US President Barack Obama, who long ago decided that his own popularity was more important than civilian lives, had unequivocally supported the peaceful opposition to Assad with a guarantee of direct American military assistance, there would have been grounds for international pressure to end the regime. Now, the consequences of the West’s failure to act are being presented as an argument against present action, as though the original “neutrality” were a natural and determined event instead of a callous and ill-advised choice. So the reasoning that supports this argument is entirely circular.

Pro-interventionists need not resort to empty promises about the emergence of Jeffersonian democracy following the war. At any rate, the analogous case here is clearly Bosnia, given the presence of ethno-religious infighting and civil war, making any American or international action reactive and not preemptive or preventative. For people who supported intervention in Bosnia for humanitarian reasons, opposition due to Iraq lessons is paradoxical, if not contradictory. Syria will doubtless remain a political slum regardless of what the US and its allies choose to do. It is worth noting, though, that the chances of either a political improvement or a return to the status quo are positively nil if there is no intervention.

A victory for the Sunnite-majority faction guarantees a sectarian, and probably Islamist, successor regime, which would be geopolitically problematic. A victory for Assad, meanwhile, would do more than reaffirm a war criminal to power; consider additionally that it would be impossible to deter a post-war Ba’athist government from employing totalitarian methods of repression, since it has already been established that nothing—including the firing of ballistic missiles at civilian targets—will motivate the West to act. While the prospects of an internationally-brokered peace are not promising, an intervention would provide an incentive for both sides to accept an alternative to fighting it to the death, such as a partition that would free the Sunnite majority from Assad while providing a territorial haven for minority groups.

Those who supported humanitarian intervention in Kurdistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur, and Libya—regardless of the West's choice to act or abstain—have clearly forgotten the lessons that those cases taught: that violence against civilians of this magnitude should be no matter of indifference and that there exists a moral responsibility to help in such circumstances. The innocents of Syria are not only collateral damage, their targeting is an actual and central means of warfare. Neither of the belligerents sees this as a problem, but we should, making the need for intervention both immediate and imperative.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com