A World on its Knees

Conflict, genocide, and crimes against humanity

Tag: Israel

More About #BringBackOurGirls, #SaveMeriam, and #BringBackOurBoys

“The people!  United!  Will never be divided!  The people!  United!  Will never be defeated!”

When I was in high school, I loved a good protest.  You got to get out into the community, chant inspiring things, and feel like you were making a difference.  Of course, sometimes the protest was very small and the cause was not as good as I thought it was.  I had not learned to analyze the causes I fought for yet.  I had righteous indignation without the experience to apply nuanced critical thinking.  The activist community sometimes fails at nuanced critical thinking in victory as well as in defeat.

What does victory look like?  In the case of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, it looked like getting attention to the matter, and it looked like help from and for the Nigerian government.  The U.S. and many European countries, including the UK, have sent surveillance equipment and soldiers, sent money, and generally given support.  Thousands of people have tweeted, facebooked, hashtagged the World Cup games, and talked to their friends about the situation.  So do we declare victory?  Can we declare victory when the girls are most likely in Cameroon, and will likely never be returned to their parents?  Boko Haram has kidnapped 60 more girls and is terrorizing people who are watching the World Cup.  Is that victory?  After all, the campaign has achieved many of its goals. 

What is the lesson here?  The people, united, can be defeated – even when backed by the great economic and military powers.

Meriam Ibrahim, meanwhile, was imprisoned, promised release, kept in prison, released, re-arrested, and the US is working to have her released again.  I will breathe easy when she is out of Sudan, and not before.  As in Nigeria, this case was championed and led by local people (yes, many of them Muslims) who were outraged by the Trousers Woman case and have been agitating for better treatment of women and religious minorities in Sudan.  Unfortunately, they are led by a power-hungry genocidal war criminal who asserts himself at every turn.  If she gets out of Sudan, as I confidently believe she will within 48 hours, it will be because of international pressure, but even more because of internal pressure.
Finally, we come to the case of the three Israeli boys kidnapped two weeks ago.  International concern is high, and it is fair to say it has not been equally high for Palestinian children caught up in the ongoing mess there in the United States.  Israeli forces, including Bedouin Israelis, are searching for them.  What, then, is the aim of the campaign to find these boys and bring them home to their families?  In part, it must be to highlight the insecurity that Israelis and Palestinians live in every single day.  It is always, always a problem when children (yes, teenagers are children) are targeted in a war – yet it is not infrequent.  This case is not special, but it is not less important for that.  In this case, it’s clear that attention will not be enough to bring these kids back, nor will it solve this ongoing imbalanced conflict that directly involves four and a half countries.

With all these international campaigns, it is easy to get lost and wonder what international attention is worth.  But to me, part of the point is attention, and paying attention.  The risk is that we pay attention without applying nuanced critical thinking, or that we pay attention until our attention is taken by something else – the latest game, whatever the Kardashians are doing, a scandal involving a clown, a blowtorch, and a Bible, or just our everyday lives.  Attention is in short supply.

It’s also very easy to get burned out if you think that your country’s involvement will magically solve the problem.  The problematic Kony 2012 campaign led to ever-increasing US involvement in trying to arrest Joseph Kony, but he is still at large.  The Obama Administration has spent resources in an attempt to find the kidnapped Nigerian girls, in vain.  Don’t get me wrong: we have to try.  There is no going back in time; we are involved in world affairs, whatever country we live in, and every country must take responsibility for its place in the world.  That means giving aid when required, accepting help, and bringing criminal governments and individuals to justice.  But sometimes the countries, united, are as vulnerable to defeat as the people, united.  Sometimes the outcome is not what we wish it to be.  That’s not a reason to give up.  It’s a reason to learn some lessons and keep working at it.

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.