First, a small preamble to this post. I have no special expertise in foreign policy. I’m just a guy who watches and reads the news, and who has been trying to make sense of the ongoing debate (which apparently has been resolved, sort of), as to whether the West should intervene in the Syrian Civil War. Last week I posted a review here of UK historian Michael Burleigh’s book Moral Combat, an ethical study of good and evil in World War Two. I suggested in my review that Burleigh makes the case that it is still possible to think about war with moral clarity. Thinking of Burleigh in light of what’s going on in Syria set this post in motion.

As the death toll climbs towards one hundred thousand in Syria, and some political figures in the West are comparing this moment to our moments of shame in the 1990s when we did nothing in Rwanda or Bosnia, I’ve been wondering if it is possible to speak coherently of good and evil in the Syrian conflict, and whether there is a moral case for the West to intervene.

Last week Aaron Miller wrote that while the present moment shows much peril in any Western (which in practice wouuld be mostly American)intervention, there is also the fear that history will look back and judge this moment, like Rwanda and Bosnia, a moral failing. “From where we sit today, it is easier to reach the conclusion that Syria is a trap for America. But once Obama’s term concludes, there will be a different evaluation. People will forget the details and circumstances –they will only see the dead and the wounded, the refugees and the physical devastation. They will want to know why America wouldn’t or couldn’t do more. And that’s partly why the pressure to do something will grow. Obama knows that Syria is the key story line in the so-called Arab Spring and that his own legacy will suffer unless he moves to counteract the negative appraisals currently gathering force. So, does he want to share the legacy of the last Democratic president, who failed to intervene in Rwanda and almost in Bosnia, too?”

There are lots of military reasons why intervention at the level of the no-fly zone would be a bad idea. It may very well be that the West has shot its bolt in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now has neither the force, the money, nor the political will to project much strength into the region. Nevertheless, as of this weekend, with US President Obama’s decision to start arming the Free Syrian Army, it now appears that we are taking some steps into the conflict.

Leaving aside questions of how we proceed tactically, there is still time to ask why we should proceed. Is there an ethically compelling case for acting? The best, and most depressing, Syria analysis I’ve seen yet on FP comes from Marc Lynch. His article is well worth reading, but here’s a quick summary. If the West wants to be idealistic, that is, if we are truly interested in ethics and humanitarian relief, then the only way to end the war and save more lives is to deal with Assad and his backers, including Iran and Russia, to bring about a peace that would allow the Assad regime to survive in some form. Such a policy might be a “stunning success” in terms of ending the fighting. allowing some return of refugees, and opening the door to rebuilding and redefining of boundaries, but from a realist point of view, it would be an “epic disaster” that would strengthen the position the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah triangle and weaken Israel’s position.

From a realist point of view, Lynch says, the best thing to do would be to strengthen the rebels and prolong the war, thus bleeding our rivals. “From this perspective, Hezbollah’s entry into the fray and the fall of Qusayr are not necessarily a bad thing — Washington now has an opportunity to strike directly at one of Iran’s most valuable assets in the Middle East. The enemy’s queen, to use a chess metaphor, has now moved out from behind its wall of pawns and is open to attack. Fear of a rebel defeat — and of a victory for Hezbollah and Iran — should squeeze more cash and military support out of the Arab Gulf, Europe, and the United States.” Unfortunately, this view pretty much guarantees more deaths, more displacement, and the spread of sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias throughout the Middle East. This course of action leads to a future of proxy warfare in the middle east for a generation, and from a humanitarian point of view is morally bankrupt.

So we have two depressing options. Idealism says to pursue a diplomatic, humanitarian solution at the expense of regional security and the balance of power. Realism says we should stoke a proxy war that will kill more people and further destabilize the region, and hope that by degrading our rivals something better might emerge.

To resolve this dilemma, I thought I would go back to Michael Burleigh thinks about Syria. His most recent comment, from April of this year, wasn’t encouraging. Speaking of his own country, the UK, he writes, “Cameron’s government is once again full of moralising outrage, raising fears that it might soon be willing to send our war-weary forces into yet another hopeless conflict in the Middle East. Why this sectarian civil war concerns us, rather than Arab armies we regularly equip with billions of pounds worth of high-tech weaponry, remains a mystery to many British people. And if [we send] in troops, the result would be nothing less than a catastrophe.” Clearly, Burleigh does not think this is an historic moment to rival Munich.

It may well be that, as Conrad Black wrote in yesterday’s National Post, only the peoples of the region, Turks, Persians, and Arabs, can sort out the future of the region, and if so, the most we can do is to provide humanitarian aid where possible. I wonder, though, if that pragmatism will be enough for the ghosts of Rwanda and Bosnia, whose presence, however insubstantial, still haunts us as we debate what we should do in Syria.

For Christians, I think our responses to this terrible situation are somewhat more straightforward. There remain almost a million refugees from this war and their numbers seem to be increasing. Several of the denominational magazines that come across my desk now feature advertisements appealing for donations to organizations working with presons displaced by the war in Syria. As the Canadian Presbyterian magazine put it, indifference is not an option. Besides supporting these organizations as part of our own stewardship, we need to remind our elected representatives that the cause of displaced persons matters to us. Now is also a good time for Christians to reach out to local Moslem communities, and pray with them. Finally, we need to pray for our leaders, that God give them the courage and the wisdom to choose peace over the temptations of realism, security, and war without end.

0 Responses

  1. I'm not sure one can intervene in a civil war without picking sides. How would backing Assad's dictatorship be morally better?
    And if we intervene on the side of the rebels then we run the risk of looking like a bunch of Crusaders come to tell the Arabs how to live their lives. And they've made it quite clear they don't like that.
    But I'm not sure how we could get the UAE or Saudis to intervene, since they're interests are probably to back Assad.

    Just like in the Sudan, how can we even logistically project our power into the region? let alone the political fall-out.

  2. There is no happy outcome for anyone in this. The greatest fear, really, is that the war will spread outside of Syria and into Lebanon and Jordan, perhaps even pulling Israel into it. Turkish intervention or greater involvement wouldn't cause many internal issues in the short term, but who knows?

    James: Saudis and the UAE are in no mind to back Assad. They are Sunni led and the militant side of that branch is under attack by the militant side of the Shiites in Syria right now with the entry of Hezbollah. If anything, it becomes more of a proxy war in the region between Iran and everyone else. FWIW, some are even placing a religious reason for Russia's support of the Assad regime -Orthodox Christian support of the Baath Party is historical, and there may still be a bitter aftertaste of what happened to that community in Iraq after America's invasion.

    Post-9/11 folks were warning the US about going into Afghanistan. Once again, we see the traditional American lack of focus: what do you want to get out of anything you do? But, that America NEEDS to get involved is something of a straw man: why is United States intervention the solution to everyone's problems?

    Bosnia was a failure of Europe, Rwanda a failure of the UN Secretariat. Syria…? Maybe it's a tragedy, not a failure, and comfort is the better reaction. Yes, sometimes doing nothing is appropriate as unpleasant and unsatisfying as that is.

    I don't think anything in Syria can be done in a small way, and I don't think it can be done through a quick/short action or bloodlessly. Invasion and nation building of an Iraq scale may be what it would take to "solve" the problem, with, hopefully, some attention given to the lesson of the failure to bring a coherent nation-building plan in Iraq. But, again, to whom does this Herculean task fall upon? I can tell you, outside of the chattering class with no skin in the game, American's want none of it.

  3. If we had intervened in the ACW back in the 1860s — purely to end the bloodshed — would the world truly be a better place today?

    If we intervene, it can only be on the sound basis of clear national interest. A state that blunders about trying to form policy based on what its leaders — or even its citizens — are certain is morally right is going to do no end of harm.

    We cannot possibly give too much money to easy the plight of refugees, provided we are not at the same time creating safe havens for the next generation of insurgents.

  4. Thanks all for reading my thoughts and offering your own.

    @James: I think we, we being the western media and political elites, have already picked sides in Syria, starting back when the Assad regime fired on unarmed protestors and it all seemed like the next phase in the Arab Spring. Two years later, there are still calls for Assad to go. Whether those calls are inspired by a sense of moral outrage, or out of a strategic desire to change a hostile regime, well, you decide. It was interesting that no one in the West really shed a tear for Qaddafi when he was toppled and killed. Despite his decision late in life to renounce terror and WMDs, he was a marked man for his earlier escapades. So I think we pick sides all the time.

    @Styler: I think those of us who are Westerners but not Americans find it very easy to call for intervention, not realizing that the bulk of the blood and treasure spilled and spent will be American. At the same time, its worth noting that the political figures calling for a no fly zone are predominantly American (looking at you, John McCain), so there's some politics y'all have to decide. I guess you folks need to decide, post Iraq and Afghanistan, if you still want to be the indispensable nation, or whether you can relinquish that role without getting flustered by talk of American decline. A realist foreign policy, I suspect, would have troubles with words like "indispensable".

    @ Lentulus: Interesting analogy. The ACW was a horrible tragedy that had to run its course to bring about what we would today call a desirable result.

  5. Excellent post, Mike – with a really useful selection of FP articles which I'd glossed over in recent weeks. Syria is a discussion subject that Mrs Roundwood and myself have been talking through a lot over recent weeks.

    Whereas we have held broadly the same views on many of the recent diplomatic and military interventions in recent years (Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan), we're completely and hopelessly out of our depth in understanding the terrifying intricacy , complexity and apparent hopelessness of Syria.

    Reading the articles, and the comments by posters to the FP articles, made deeply depressing reading. The very bright hopes we had for the fledging "Responsibility to Protect" UN doctrine, and its application in precisely these circumstances of horrendous humanitarian catastrophe, look pretty useless now in a Syrian context. I have little hope for any resolution at the Geneva talks, but trying to achieve some form of de-escalation and ceasefire must surely be the first step even on a very short term before the position becomes hopelessly irretrievable. Thanks again for a fine post, making sombre reading on a Sunday morning!