If recent coffee conversations turn to political issues, the subject of what should be done about Syria is likely to come up. It may not be widely known that in the Brainerd area the Great Decisions discussion group has monthly meetings to discuss current international political topics. The national organization sponsoring the program is the Foreign Policy Association of the United States. This is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization created in 1918 to “serve as a catalyst for developing citizen awareness, understanding and informed opinion on U.S. foreign policy and global issues.” It provides materials for local Great Decisions study groups in the U.S. Bob Passi ably leads the sessions in Brainerd. Coincidentally, the August session, just prior to the recent chemical weapons massacre in Syria, was on “Humanitarian Intervention and U.S. Policy.” This review is to share some of the highlights of this session without concluding what the U.S. should do.
The Syria issue was framed as “determining whether, when, where and why to intervene to protect civilians caught in the crosshairs of war and violence.” This concept is usually labeled as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) – to prevent, to react and to rebuild. The idea is as old as the Geneva Conventions (1922) but a major reframing took place in 2001 when national sovereignty was judged to be contingent rather than absolute because state sovereignty entails duties and not simply rights. The assertion therefore is that if any state is manifestly unable or unwilling to exercise the responsibility to protect its own citizens from mass murder, its sovereignty is abrogated. Along with this, other states have a responsibility to consider military intervention for humanitarian reasons.
But the study guide essay also admonished, “Acute dilemmas remain for humanitarians and policy makers.” This seems more and more an understatement. The U.S. intervened in Libya, where President Obama was firm about limiting the U.S.’s role in the operation to “days not weeks.” The ”why” for Washington’s stance was that military action was both justifiable and feasible. A major question therefore is whether an action is feasible. There seems to be a consensus that historically there has hardly been too much, but rather too little humanitarian intervention in such crises. The history of Western imperialism provides some Third World skepticism, although the Arab League and others supported intervention in Libya.
The issue in Syria was a part of the Great Decisions discussion with the background essay summarizing the history as mostly “states remaining on the sidelines while rigorously condemning Syria’s bloodbath and watching successive agreements go up in flames.” After 15 children scribbled some anti-Assad graffiti on a wall brought a brutal repression by Assad in March 2011, it took until August for the U.N. to issue merely a condemnatory presidential statement. In the first year over 12,000 civilians died. The complexity of Syria includes its multiple mutually hostile Muslim sects plus about 10 percent Christians, dense urban areas that make civilian deaths from intervention more likely than in Libya, and the well-disciplined and mostly loyal Syrian armed forces. The complexity also includes the fact that the six bordering nations of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey all have different relationships with Syria, with each other, and with the U.S. Thus, “sustained stalemate and slaughter seem likely unless all sides can agree on a post-Assad, power-sharing agreement…supported by the West, Russia, China, and Iran.” Most analysts think that this outcome is very unlikely, and there is no military solution.
The workbook essay summarized the Syrian problem as, “The responsibility to protect is a principle and not a tactic, and the principle remained intact in Syria even if international action was less fulsome than in Libya…When governments resort to mass murder, we may have no easy solutions.” It then listed multiple risks of both deploying military forces and no military action. The risks of intervention are: 1. It may be premature and not give other coercive sanctions the chance to work. 2. Military force may do more harm than good. 3.Those applying force may exceed the terms of an approved mandate, complicating the effort. 4. A military operation may fail if done poorly. 5. The unpredictable aftermath of military force may complicate post-conflict peace building. The risks of inaction are: 1. Unpredictable catastrophic suffering may occur similar to the Holocaust. 2. States would once again be shamed by looking the other way, making a mockery of international law. 3. Postponing actions may reduce options and increase the ultimate cost of resolution. 4. Collective spinelessness could send the wrong message to other would-be thugs, weakening the deterrent effects of future international diplomacy.
A conclusion seemed to be that if the responsibility to protect concept has validity it means, in the words of one author, “We are all atrocitarians now – but so far only in words and not yet in deeds.” President Clinton had a mea culpa after Rwanda, but Washington’s and London’s false “humanitarian” justifications and erroneous outcome predictions for the Iraq war were temporarily a conversation stopper for responsibility to protect, and this memory still suppresses it. Meanwhile, some Third World countries cannot be blamed for viewing the concept as a Trojan horse of Western neo-imperialism. Nevertheless, the moral philosopher Michael Walzer concludes, “It is more often the case that powerful states do not do enough or don’t do anything at all in response to desperate need than that they respond in imperialistic ways.”
One of the least controversial conclusions about Syria is that the choice between policy options represents an authentic dilemma. Neither option is without risks. Nevertheless, we should all try to be as informed as possible about this difficult issue. This report only highlights a few points of a very complex issue, and can at best only provide a beginning framework of understanding. As we learn more we should try to engage in civil conversation that respects differing opinions over what course is best.