Sunday, September 1, 2013

We Must Intervene in Syria

Syrians bury their dead in the civil war

Bashar Al Assad was a polite and affable man. During his time doing his postgraduate training in London in ophthalmology, he eschewed any interest in politics and was considered quite simply a nice man. If it wasn’t for the untimely death of his elder brother and heir apparent of his dictator father, he probably would be living a normal life with his elegant wife in some salubrious London suburb. He would not be considered today as a bloodthirsty tyrant, the unflinching instigator in the deaths of over 100,000 of his own people and the displacement of millions more.

Today the world is debating the consequences of his murderous regime and whether or not his minions in the army blatantly ignored international norms and indiscriminately massacred over a thousand Syrians, mostly innocent civilians. For a civil war that has bounced along the headlines for over two years, revealing horrific imagery; the photos of children, lined up dead with little of serious physical injury as if asleep, almost preserving their innocence the victims of a supposed sarin attack were enough to rouse the frustrated anger of nations over the tipping point. If the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, it is utterly inexcusable and must be punished.

The debate itself is quite rightly centered around the need for firm, verifiable proof of chemical weapons use. For over two years other nations refused to intervene and for a while that was the right move to do. However no one could have perceived when Bashar Al Assad cracked down on some peaceful protestors would result in over two years of unbelievable bloodshed resulting in so much death and suffering, affecting almost every part of the country. There comes a time when the internal difficulties of a nation are so acute that international intervention is needed. Just as it is the case in natural disasters, humanity has a duty to halt an unprecedented calamity, in this case a man made one.

Many have argued that nations like the US, UK and France have been gung-ho about intervening for a long time. I would state that these countries have been incredibly reserved about getting involved. In fact the statement by the Obama administration that they would not get involved unless chemical weapons were used was in itself a strong statement of intent of staying out of the conflict. By making the bar of action so high, by in effect basing it on the use of a kind of weapon virtually the whole word reviles and would consider any nation or regime using it as complete and utter lunacy was a strong admission of wanting to stay out of the action. But the Syrian regime may have been that stupid to use them.

Bashar Al Assad and his Wife
One could call this the Iraq effect. After a coalition of countries invaded Syria’s neighbour ten years ago on dodgy intelligence about supposed WMD,  politicians and the public were burned and loath to get involved in another war, let alone when the evidence is staring them in the face. In many respects the result has been a much more detailed, vociferous debate about the intelligence now concerning the use of chemical weapons and that is a good thing. But there is a fundamental difference between the two: Intent. Saddam Hussein was no angel and had used chemical weapons against Kurds in an uprising in the majorly Kurdish north but there was no fundamental evidence of WMD and the regime’s intent on using them on a grand scale against its own people or others. Yet every day we watch the news and we see the regime of Bashar All Assad intentionally and brutally butchering his own people, disregarding innocent civilians.

With Syria and the debate on intervention, you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t. The question is which of the options is the least worse? For me staying out is the worst option. The intervention being considered by the US and others certainly won’t end the war. In many respects that is not the intent of the plans. There will be no ground war that will bog down soldiers for years, the main fear of the electorate in countries like America. If chemical weapons have been found to have been used then the international community is bound to make a stand and punish the Syrian regime for their callous actions. An example must be made that flouting international norms in such a way will not go unpunished and thus make others think twice in the future of using chemical weapons.

Syria is falling apart. As a composite nation, created by bureaucrats in Europe after WWI disregarding its many layered ethnic groups, it risks falling in to the trap of Bosnia twenty years ago. Even now, the rabble opposition that has no central command is ripping out mini fiefdoms and in parts tiny caliphates of fundamentalism that would make groups like Al Quieda proud. This festering cancer risks creating further massacres regardless of who wins the civil war. The longer these groups are allowed to distill their beliefs further, the more dangerous things are for not only Syria but also for the region as a whole. One should only look at recent events in Mali to see this happen. We cannot sit idly by as Syria becomes the next Bosnia.

Samantha Power
My personal opinion is based on a question. What is the difference between guns and sarin? Both are weapons. Both are used to maim innocent people. For the supposed 1,400 people that the US says have been killed by sarin in Syria last month, there have been over 100,000 people murdered by bombs and bullets. Just because one weapon is considered more heinous than the other does not discard from the fact that this regime deliberately intends to murder and that there is no limit to how many their own people get in the way of achieving their goals. It has been a drip feed of murder. If 100,000 people were killed in a day at the start of this civil war by one bomb or like in Srebrenica over a week or Rwanda over four months, rounded up indiscriminately and shot or hacked to pieces we would not be sitting around doing nothing.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN has been quite rightly quoted often in this debate. She writes in her book A Problem From Hell:

"Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their head down will be left alone. They urge cease-fires and donate humanitarian aid."

She goes on further to say: “States that murder and torment their own citizens target citizens elsewhere. Their appetites become insatiable.” In essence this really isn’t just a Syrian problem, it is and it can go further than that.

We all watched while 500,000 people were killed in four months in Rwanda. We stood by for too long while Bosnians murdered each other along ethnic and religions lines. With both  we deeply regretted letting down not just them but humanity as a whole. We may learn to regret getting involved in Syria. So one should not just consider the concept of international norms concerning chemical weapons as a justification for intervening.  Intervening will be messy regardless of its outcome. A line must not just be drawn in the sand about the use of sarin but on the indiscriminate massacre of people on an epic scale that has been occurring ceaselessly for over two years. Otherwise when historians look back, Syria will be just another chapter right beside Bosnia and Rwanda in the heinously abject failure to prevent humanity from murdering each other in such a way.

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