The puzzle of Syria may define the geopolitical matrix for a generation. Why? Because the crisis in Syria has in fact gone beyond a definitive “red line”: the use of chemical agents against thousands of civilians, with hundreds of children and hundreds of women, and more than a thousand innocents killed, is a crime against humanity. The international diplomatic and security treaty structure cannot stand by without acting.
At present, the Russian Federation stands as the most vocal opponent of action, and for reasons of trade, and apparently with the routine leverage that comes with Russian gas exports, European nations appear uneasy about intervening to prevent more mass death. Both Beijing and Moscow oppose this intervention, and have signaled their will to apply veto power on the UN Security Council to quash any resolution for the use of force against Bashar al-Assad.
The Russian Federation enjoys use of military bases and port facilities, on the Mediterranean, under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Moscow does not intend to let go of that privilege. There is reason for concern that should the regime fall, Syria will disintegrate into a far more fractious, radicalized and dangerous mess than neighboring Iraq did, after the fall of its Ba’athist regime.
The United States, currently the sole major power advocating military intervention (after UK prime minister David Cameron lost a use-of-force resolution in the House of Commons), has no appetite for a ground invasion, followed by a protracted occupation. In fact, the need for such a solution would, it seems, be viewed as a strategic failure, from the outset.
It appears that a number of deliberate deceits that played a role in then prime minister Tony Blair’s persuasion of the British Parliament to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq (only slated to officially wind down by the end of next year) have now halted David Cameron’s effort to secure the moral and legal authority to respond to Assad’s war crimes in a forceful way.
The opposition to Assad is a tangle of both rational and radical political actors, armed protesters, armed civilians, militant extremists and foreign-backed guerrillas. There are non-state actors, like al-Qaeda, supporting some elements of the opposition, and there are major governments alleged to be working behind the scenes. Unconfirmed “official” estimates of the number of distinct opposition entities range from 10-15 to 500-1200.
Most worrying is the fact that Assad’s regime uses its extreme force to maintain ethnic minority rule; this has created a potential for interethnic civil war and even genocidal campaigns of terror, from multiple angles. Assad is using this fear to persuade foreign governments to let him remain in power, even as he uses warplanes, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons, to kill his own people.
The Syria question comes down to this: which moral disgrace are we most willing to tolerate and/or condone? Assad’s brutal and unrelenting slaughter of civilians or the potential for multi-directional mass killing and anarchy that might ensue, if his regime is taken down? The operative word, of course is “might”… we know Assad has murdered tens of thousands of his own people, with total impunity and no apparent remorse whatsoever; we do not know if Syria will disintegrate, should his regime fall.
Last week, the British Parliament took the view, it would seem, that blood caution is the bastion of the wise and moral. That leaves Pres. Barack Obama and the United States Congress to face the awful question: can we engage in selfless, legitimate and necessary service to humanity, if we take military action alone, in Syria?
The world has failed the innocent so many times before. We can talk about the 12 million people slaughtered in Nazi death camps (6 million of them Jewish, 6 million imprisoned for other supposedly non-Aryan qualities); we can talk about the Cambodian genocide, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Yugoslavia, and Darfur. And now, we can talk about tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered by their government while the world’s governments stood by without acting.
The UN system was set up to act against such slaughter. Kofi Annan made it a central mission of his time as Secretary General to raise awareness and to work against such crimes as what happened in Rwanda, when the world community failed to respond to his warnings and pleas for help, when he was UN Africa director.
There now appears to be documented evidence of a military scale Sarin gas attack on unarmed civilians, in Syria. It appears that no other party could feasibly have carried out the attack, aside from the Syrian regime. The regime has already killed tens of thousands with conventional weapons, even using war planes to fire missiles into residential buildings; it is credible that such a regime would not hestitate to use chemical weapons to do the same.
There are unsubstantiated rumors that the “efficacy” of these weapons, and the possibility an attack could be concealed, might have been discussed within the regime. While a number of world powers got behind the invasion of Iraq, to seize weapons of mass destruction that had been destroyed years earlier, and an overwhelming NATO military strike was undertaken against Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi, because he threatened to use warplanes against civilians in Benghazi, those same powers have withheld action against Syria, even as Assad has murdered tens of thousands.
Geopolitics is the only explanation. Both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi’s regimes were highly isolated. Both had broken specific treaty agreements that allowed for the use of force to be legitimated under existing international law. Syria has not been subject to the same regime of sanctions, and Assad has powerful backers, in Russia, Iran and in the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
The geopolitical complex of frictions, and the likelihood of a catastrophic conflagration, are hampering responsible, targeted action to eliminate Assad’s ability to use lethal force against thousands of people at any one time. In Sun Tzu’s ancient treatise The Art of War, the Chinese general repeatedly warns that no victory can be expected where one does not understand the landscape (both physical and metaphysical) in which the conflict itself is taking place.
The current abundance of caution that characterizes world governments’ approach to saving Syria from further mass killing suggests the landscape of the conflict appears (to those slowing the march to war) unlikely to be worse with no action than if action were taken. What the people of Syria need right now, more than anything, is a coordinated effort by world leaders to rescue them from their government, in a way that will not leave them even more vulnerable.