Our Northern neighbor, Syria, is being devastated by a bloody civil war for over a year now. UN estimates some 14 000 people already lost their lives. As pretty much everyone living in Israel, I’m happy that the Golan was not given back to Damascus in exchange of a peace treaty, for two reasons:
- - This kind of peace more with a regime than with a country is quite fragile as we currently see with Egypt: since the fall of the Mubarak regime, calls to break the peace treaty with Israel have been more and more heard both in street demonstrations and among the Muslim Brotherhood candidates.
- - The Golan offers us a strategic advantage, protecting Northern Israel as well as enabling us to monitor what is going on in the Syrian territory.
Whatever, observing the recent developments and reading a bunch of not-always-deep/interesting analysis on the question, I’ve been thinking more and more about the question of a Western/international military intervention in Syria to topple the Assad regime and bring back peace.
Obviously, the pros and cons are the usual ones:
- - The Humanitarians claim that “we” have a moral responsibility to put an end to the horrific massacres that are going on and that it is the occasion to bring democracy, which is supposed to be, on the long run at least, a vector of peace, stability and development.
- - On the other hand, the so-called Realists are aware of the failures of similar missions in the Middle East over the last decade or so: first and foremost Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Libya, as is seems that being Kaddafi-free isn’t enough to bring the country back to the right track. With the economic crisis not over, the West is even less capable of achieving its goals, without even taking into account the lack of popularity of those missions in post-modern societies. Furthermore, the local, Middle Eastern culture isn’t one of democracy and the alternative to current secular, post-panarab dictatorships seems to be a more or less radical Islamic theocracy (as seen for example in the Parliamentary elections in Egypt), which is not exactly the initial goal…
That said, I would like to add a certain argument to the debate, even though I wouldn’t pretend it is per se enough to push the balance on the side of intervention. So here it is: what underlies the realists’ argument is the fact that the Western armies have so far repeatedly failed to influence the new regimes they brought to power as much as it was pretended they could. Hence, we shouldn’t invest men and money in foreign wars that “we can’t win”. The real, epitomic, example is the late 80’s Afghanistan where massive cash/weapons were sent to the Mujahidin who fought against the USSR, part inevitably arriving in the hands of the Taliban which we are still fighting today. But leave this example of only indirect intervention aside for a moment and think the other way around: yes, maybe Libya will be a tribal/Islamic country. Maybe. But what if we hadn’t intervened? Would the situation be any better in the middle run? Probably not. At least, for a reasonable cost (that paradoxically could have been even more reduced had we launched a more open air bombing campaign against Kaddafi) we avoided massacres (yes, there were massacres, but they would have been for more extended had Kaddafi reached Benghazi, crushing the rebellion… for a few years before it would have reappeared from its ashes) and we do (or should I rather say could?) have a, if minimal, control on the future of Libya that we could use to our advantage. In any case, this influence is more important than if we had just waited and saw what was going on without doing anything. With a more prolonged civil war, the jihadists would probably have had much more power among the coalition of rebels (as what is going on is Syria, where, through their higher level of organization and popular fears, radical Islamists have a growing influence in the fight against the Assad regime), hence creating further needs for intervention if they were given the chance to turn the country into a jihadist formation camp at the gate of Europe.
Winston Churchill is known for having said once on appeasement with Nazi Germany: “you were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Many among the humanitarians misuse this sentence (as it is unfortunately very often the case with quotations) to “argue” in favor of a “[moral] duty of intervention”, whatever the circumstances. This is probably not what the arch-twisted Conservative Prime Minister meant. I rather see him arguing first and foremost in favor of raising war against Germany in the name of the inevitability of such a war (hence the end of his sentence: there no price susceptible to be paid to avoid it), which then should rather be started when we’re ready for it instead of waiting for the enemy to attack first (remember the famous sentence from the battle of Fontenoy by the comte d’Anterroche [“messieurs les anglais, tirez les premiers”] wasn’t actually said in this form. There are rules in war (jus in bello), but no sports fair-play). Churchill hence probably wouldn’t have called for war against dictators under any circumstances, being highly aware of the complexity of geopolitical situations on the ground (a fortiori here: a civil war is too recurrent and too morally complex a phenomenon to intervene automatically. We’re not dealing with Hitler vs. Czechoslovakia here). But in a case such as Libya or Syria, in the middle of an “Arab spring” that is nothing of a joyous affair except for what some foolhardies in the West with no conscience of realities believe, well, then, maybe, we should take old Winston into account before saying massacres in Syria are none of our business. The true question is: is not intervening now a guarantee that we won’t have to intervene in the more or less near future? But then and again, mild lukewarm interventions are pretty much useless. It shouldn’t necessarily be a ground operation (even though the Syrian army, contrary to what some “pundits” have been saying, is, according to the Israeli army who beat the hell out of it several times, totally outdated) but it should definitely be full-fledged. Oh, and last but not least, choosing allies and decidedly taking sides is better for influence that just clapping hands when the game is over.
So, to sum-up:
1): Internal uprisings, even such massive ones, are too recurrent and too morally complex a phenomenon to justify an automatic intervention.
- 2): But:
- if, among the protagonists, there is an identifiable group susceptible to be supported (aka sharing basic values/interests) and on which we can have influence on in the case it eventually wins, then an intervention can make sense.
- even if we are not sure of our future influence on the winner, an early intervention can break some easily foreseeable dynamics that are negative for the West, such as the ascent of radical Islamic groups in the course of the civil war.
- 3): Finally, I would like to remind the reader that the “Syrian events” weren’t initially an open confrontation between various ethnic/religious groups. They consisted in demonstrations demanding, if not democracy at least some more basic freedom. It is the harshness of the security forces in mostly Sunni cities that created the much more dangerous and volatile current situation. Had the UN taken sanctions after the first massacres the evolution might have been different. But, obviously, that would suppose this organization would be what it was initially supposed to be, a coalition of free states, and not one which has for only goal to maintain for the longest possible the post WW2 equilibrium (giving too much power to France, UK and, more relevant for our case, Russia) paralleled by a sort of fair of the absurd in the (hopefully powerless) General Assembly.