Bombing the government of Syria, targeting selected sites related to the command and implementation of the chemical attack against civilians in Moadamiya is a seductive idea.
Chemical weapons have been banned under international law since 1925. They are uniquely shocking to the conscience. Campaigners against weapons such as anti-personnel landmines hold up the repudiation of chemical weapons as their gold standard: there is a visceral, almost instinctive, revulsion against using them.
Moadamiya’s civilian residents suffered atrociously in the assault, not only children, women and men who were affected in the initial exposure, but health workers and others who rushed to help were thereby exposed as well. The way that a nerve gas diffuses in an invisible but deadly manner in a neighborhood, is one reason it is so reviled.
There are other attacks on civilians around the world that are killing comparable numbers. An obvious comparison is the death toll in Egypt’s recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (for which the U.S. has not even considered a penny’s reduction in support to that military regime). But in the court of international public opinion, chemical weapons are rightly considered a red line.
The people of Syria deserve protection, an end to this war, and the creation of an environment in which their political disputes can be nonviolently addressed.
The Syrian government, all those who participated in ordering this assault, deserve harsh and incisive punishment. Air strikes are an attractive option to the U.S. Commander in Chief.
But even if a thousand drone missiles struck the Syrian government tomorrow, would the people of Syria be better positioned to end the war and begin the difficult work of establishing a new, more just dispensation? Would they even have a chance to try as long as the regional powers, are so intent on waging proxy war within the country, and NATO countries are pursuing a muddled policy, more concerned with minimizing domestic political risks than solving Syria’s problem?
There will be no protection for civilians in Syria until the international actors can create a framework that enables Syrians to settle their disputes. The war is fueled at this point by outsiders: supporting various factions of rebels are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and the U.S.; supporting the government are Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.
Civilian protection is not a goal well-pursued by forcible regime change. Tearing regimes apart is much more readily done than is building the institutions of capable and consensual government. A saying well-known in the region is “better sixty years of tyranny than one night of anarchy.” But few people are discussing military action to this extent—at least for now. Targeted punitive strikes are more likely to be the declared aim, though the Libya example suggests that most Syrians will perceive a regime change agenda lurking in even the most limited military actions.
The immediate policy objective behind today’s debate is not resolving Syria’s political crisis or even protecting civilians. The policy is about us, not them: it is to punish the Asad regime for not abiding by Obama’s red line. It is about protecting U.S. global authority.
Enthusiasts for military action in Damascus cite examples from recent history, but rarely with the context or depth that allows lessons to be learned correctly. Some are calling for a Kosovo-like bombing campaign, on account of the tenuous legal framework to legitimate the strikes. But the organization of the military action sounds closer to Operation Deliberate Force (1995) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, much more limited in nature. Lest we view that action through rose-colored glasses, we would do well to recall that it did not end either atrocities or the war. The largest atrocities were perpetrated during the initial Bosnian Serb offensives of 1992, and then following the fall of Srebenica in July 1995. And in terms of ending the war, more important than air strikes were other political and military realignments on the ground.
Another example is Libya in 2011, when UN-sanctioned action to protect civilians at risk of massacre in Benghazi morphed into a war to overthrow Muamar Gaddafi. Few shed tears at the fall of the Libyan strongman, but many in the international community drew the lesson that when the U.S., France and Britain claim to be acting on moral principle (in that case, the “responsibility to protect”), political ambition for regime change lurks underneath. One of the legacies of the Libya campaign is such distrust of western motives, that no international consensus is likely on the use of force in Syria. It follows that unilateral NATO actions would likely engender a deeper international political paralysis on a real resolution of the crisis. Further, response to the political crisis and violence against civilians in Egypt has undermined the credibility of western commitment to democracy in the region.
In Syria, air strikes are a gesture of desperation in a political vacuum. Behind such strikes there still remains no coherent political plan for Syria. No talks scheduled. Regardless of the nature of any planned military action, war without a companion political vision is simply escalation of violence. This does not bode well for Syrians.
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