Syria: We Must Intervene, and We Can’t
One of my aims in writing this blog is to present the world we actually live in, rather than the one we wish we had. Here is a fact of the world we actually live in: the Western European and North American nations must intervene in Syria, and they can’t.
Some kind of intervention is imperative. Civilian deaths are mounting. The region is being destabilized. Refugees from Syria have already created a permanent crisis in Jordan. Refugee camps are not built to be sturdy – they’re not built to last – but they are becoming sprawling (and lawless) cities. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are women and children, and the children are often alone. They are subjected to exploitation and abuse outside Syria, and immense danger within the country. The economies of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are under immense pressure, and the social and political structures are in trouble. All three countries were maintaining a delicate political and social balance before the refugee crisis. The Lebanese system, always on the brink, was beginning to crumble, and Lebanon’s relationship with Syria has always been problematic.
This crisis is clearly not limited to Syria, and the community of nations (such as it is) has a responsibility to protect the civilians within the country and the interests of the whole region.
However, almost any kind of intervention will make the situation worse. The popular understanding of the bloody conflict tearing Syria apart goes something like this: Assad is a dictator who tramples on human rights, and the people have risen up to overthrow him and establish a Real Government on Democratic Principles, thus granting Freedom to all Syrians. This is about as close to the truth as the Walt Disney movie Pocahontas is to American history. Like the movie, it sometimes gets the names right.
Assad is a dictator. Assad has been guilty of repressions and human rights violations. Assad targets civilians. There are a number of rebel groups involved. They do not share the same goals. They have also been guilty of repression and human rights violations in the areas they control. And they target civilians. Indeed, one or more rebel groups may be using chemical weapons. Freedom lovers, democracy and freedom are not the same. Democracy is not synonymous with liberal Western values, such as freedom of religion. Some of the rebels in Syria have deliberately targeted and killed religious and ethnic minorities. Russia will not counter Assad in part because Syrian rebel groups are intent on religious purification, a euphemism for the wholesale destruction of Orthodox Christian communities. The religious purification agenda is bad news for the West, and bad news for Lebanon and Jordan, both of which have mixed populations notably including Muslim non-conformists, who are also targets.
So what would the goal of intervention be? Who should be targeted? Assad? Rebels? Which rebels? It is about as easy to get complete, reliable information out of Syria right now as it is to get independent opinions out of North Korea. There is no good intervention strategy on the table.
The one country that could lead a strong, common-sense intervention is the one that can’t: Israel. Israel has the military capability and an immediate interest in stability in the region. Israel is well-placed to get better information out of Syria. And Israel cannot make a move in the region without causing trouble. Syria, in particular, has a history of territorial disputes with Israel, so any move Israel makes will be seen as a way of gaining territory at the expense of other nations.
So before we criticize France for wanting to intervene, the U.S. for promising to do something without saying what, or the U.K. for holding back, we should consider the real-world bind that these countries find themselves in. They need to protect allies in the region. They have an interest in protecting civilian lives and minority rights, stemming the flow of refugees, and protecting the global economy. And both action and inaction will make things worse.