Syrians are the victims of a smorgasbord of global double dealing and hypocrisy that exceeds the sad standards we have become used to in this century. The arguments have seen some unlikely alliances in the West. In support of intervention are people who are genuinely concerned at the plight of Syria’s suffering people, along with those who are happy to cheer Israeli bombings of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese people. The presence of these latter ghouls in the pro-intervention camp should give anyone pause, along with their like-minded neocon friends who want the Pentagon to use all that smart and lethal military technology.
On the other hand, we have conservative isolationists who really do not see it is as our business if foreigners are killing each other in faraway places of which they know little, and they are arm in arm with radical leftists. Once upon a time, the left preached proletarian internationalism, workers in unity across national boundaries, sending volunteers to Spain, calling for the opening of a Second Front in Europe and applauding foreign aid to the Viet Cong. In this new era of what we should puckishly call socialist nationalism, a country’s sovereignty is sacred and unimpeachable—at least if threatened by any Western power. So they come to the same conclusion as the right: let them rot.
The United Nations is used as a tool by both sides. It has been honorable but ineffective. Ban Ki-moon has actually repeatedly emphasized the horror of what has happened while eschewing Washington’s unilateralism.
Indeed, some of those who oppose intervention will piously point to the need for Security Council authorization before any action is taken against Syria, or Serbia, or Sudan. But if the U.N. does authorize action, those people will oppose it just as fervently! For the dying Syrians, the U.N. must seem thoroughly irrelevant, but it is the cockpit in which their case is being fought. Russia, a weaker power with a Security Council veto, cites the organization continuously as the necessary legitimation for action against Syria, clinging to the literal legality of U.N. obligations while being insouciant of the spirit.
President Barack Obama has been puzzlingly imprecise about U.S. attitudes to the world body, perhaps reflecting a battle inside his team with the neocons who see the U.N. as an instrument to be used when it suits them but cast aside when inconvenient. Obama’s reputation will take considerable time to recover from his initial gaffe of suggesting that the U.S. would not wait for the U.N. inspectors’ report on chemical weapons use in Damascus. After the brief post-Bush honeymoon, it is obvious that Washington’s lucid moment about the U.N. and international law has come to an end.
One would like to think that the British House of Commons vote against intervention—from the parliament that declared war on Hitler because he had invaded Poland—was not simply an expression of isolationism, but also a comment on legality. Both Cameron and Obama had signaled their willingness to attack without the U.N. report, let alone a U.N. mandate.
The members of parliament also voted in a context in which it is universally admitted that Tony Blair and Bush lied to secure support for their disastrous attack on Iraq, and in which maladroit and insincere leadership turned a bad dream into a nightmare, and turned the intervention in Afghanistan—which was legal—into a total disaster.
The framers of the concept of Responsibility to Protect—R2P, as it became known in diplomatic shorthand in the age of text and Twitter—were well aware of the pitfalls, and their document anticipated most of the perils that face its honest application. Few countries are unalloyed emulators of the Good Samaritan: they do not like risking their own citizens’ lives and taxpayers’ finances in a good cause. One might remember that the U.S. sent the bill for Desert Storm to the Gulf states, who sent on their claims to be paid with Iraqi reparations.
But the palpable disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan raise the question of who can be entrusted to run such operations? Under R2P, the time to intervene in Syria was two years ago, when the Assad regime began to massacre demonstrators. The U.S. dithered, militarily and diplomatically, emulating former Secretary of State James Baker when he said of the Balkans that the U.S. “has no dog in this fight.” Some decision makers were weighing on varying scales whether it was good for Israel or bad for Iran, and the really cynical concluded that an endless civil war eviscerating an Arab neighbor to Israel just had to be good thing.
In the end, of course, the precipitating event was the chemical weapons attack which crossed the red line that Obama probably now wishes he had not drawn in the sand. This horrific attack diverted attention from R2P to the chemical weapons issue, and allowed unusually adroit Russian diplomacy to switch the issue from the regime’s killing with mere physical impact weaponry to the chemical weapons. Before, the issue was whether to use military force under R2P to protect civilians, with or without a U.N. mandate. Now it has become simply chemical disarmament.
To the dead, it might count as irrelevant whether they were charred with napalm, burnt alive with white phosphorus, shelled in a marketplace or disintegrated by drones dropping bombs from on high.
Syria had not hitherto signed the conventions banning chemical and biological weapons, one reason being that it had neighbors—notably Iraq and Israel—who also had not. Interestingly, the Israeli government is happy that Syria might be disarmed, but less ecstatic about Damascus ratifying the convention, since that raises the question of why poor little Israel has not—not to mention the nuclear issue! Indeed, the U.S. itself was a relatively late signatory to the convention.
Even then, there was something very Israeli in tone about the idea of massive air-strikes to “punish” the regime. Its sole purpose was to insulate Obama from the charges that he was doing nothing. Bombing the chemical and biological weapons stocks carries fairly obvious risks. The chances of massive casualties for the civilians who are being “protected” are very high, while the denial of any intention of regime change misses the point. How else does one stop the regime massacring its citizenry without changing it? Apart from warming the cold hearts of those who always applaud bombings of Arabs and Muslims, it is difficult to see any point in the threatened exercise.
In an ideal world, a surgical military strike to take out the regime might have stopped the killing, but that is far too late, and the only country with the wherewithal to do it, the U.S., is manifestly unsuited for the role after recent experiences, even in the unlikely event that it could persuade its fellow U.N. members to entrust it with a mandate.
Past HumiliationsMoscow’s cooperation over the chemical issue might raise other possibilities. Russian attitudes need to be put into historical and diplomatic context. Yes, there is the basic immorality of support for Assad (as for Qaddafi and Milosevic before). But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was Russia’s man at the U.N. after the first Iraq war, in which Moscow cooperated in the spirit of the New World Order. It was regularly humiliated by seeing its views set aside and resolutions with which it had originally colluded being stretched to justify actions, bombings, embargos and the economic destruction of a nation and people, well beyond any reasonable reading of the resolutions. Lying Western leaders bypassed Russia for the second Iraq war, and again in Libya, when reluctantly conceding a principle on R2P Moscow once again was ignored in the operation’s execution. Western behavior has indeed been such as to justify some degree of paranoia! Bush and Blair’s precedents of taking such phrases beyond the limits certainly explains Moscow’s reluctance to see any mention of forcible intervention, even in a chemical disarmament resolution.
The fact remains, however, that Lavrov has effectively thwarted the U.S. push—which entailed, one suspects, some heavy pressure by Moscow on its ally in Damascus, including a threat of withdrawal of support. Sadly this shows what President Vladimir Putin could have achieved earlier but chose not to, so there are no haloes on offer.
And then we come to continuing hypocrisy. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power in September was defending the possibility of intervening without the approval of the U.N. Security Council. However, Washington can try to get a resolution at an Emergency Special General Assembly, under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution designed precisely to bypass a vetoed Council. The two reasons for not doing so illustrate the lamentable cumulative effects of American undiplomacy over the decades. Ironically, to assemble the alleged “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq, the isolationists of the Bush administration carefully courted, albeit via a somewhat rough wooing, many small nations, as did then-U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in his quasi-theological crusade to thwart the International Criminal Court.
Since the Obama administration is much less single-minded on Syria, it has not devoted similar resources. A Coalition of the Dithering somehow lacks focus. Most perniciously of all, however, the canker of reflexive support for Israel has led the U.S., under both Republican and Democrat administrations, to deny the legal validity of the very process it had pioneered to fight the Korean War despite the Soviet veto. The reason for that denial, of course, is that the Palestinians had rediscovered the technique to combat the automatic U.S. veto on behalf of Israel. Washington has therefore sacrificed a valuable legal and diplomatic lever—which, by contagion, tempts it to illegal action.
A General Assembly resolution calling for an arms embargo might not have “legal” effect, but it certainly would have a profound diplomatic and moral effect on Moscow. It could also signal exasperation with Washington’s Gulf allies and their support for the Salafist wing of the opposition, whose sanguinary and shameless efforts have given Damascus such a propaganda coup. But Washington shows no signs of sacrificing its other interests for a bunch of dying and dispossessed Syrians by threatening sanctions against Russia or the Gulf.
Sadly, however, while the U.N. can now offer hospice care to Syria and help it to survive, there is no miracle cure in sight. Through its agencies it can help the refugees and the internally displaced, and it can provide inspectors and mechanisms to implement a cease-fire if Kerry and Lavrov can pull one off. It will certainly be part of any solution—but there are no unmitigatedly happy endings in view.