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The Syrian Dilemma: Whither Intervention?
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2012-02-22 07:56:12
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Albert Camus posed a Kirkegaard-like dilemma of madness in his notebooks: the absolute helplessness one feels in doing nothing, and the dangers of doing something.  The escalating, blood-drenched violence in Syria is such a case – the sense of helplessness of not intervening on the one hand, and the catastrophic consequences that any such intervention would lead to.  Either pathway ensures damnation.

Let us examine, then, the side of those wanting intervention, either half or wholeheartedly.  Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago (New York Times, Feb 3) puts forth the stock standard line on humanitarian intervention (he doesn’t even question that, as a concept, it is dangerously problematic), that ‘a coalition of countries, sanctioned by major international and regional institutions, should intervene to stop’ campaigns of mass homicide ‘as long as they have a viable plan, with minimal risk of casualties for the interveners.’ Neither is the case in Syria, and even Pape feels a reluctance to take that stop.  Such a position was also taken by China and Russia. 

Nonsense, claims the ever noisy and blood-hungry Max Boot, who writes in Commentary that ‘Syria seems to be a case in point of exactly the kind of situation where Pape would justify intervention.’ But more to the point, and this again shows that what lies on the other side of humanitarian interventionism is often inhuman cold-blooded calculation.  ‘This is a huge opportunity to strike an indirect blow against Assad’s patrons in Syria and to change the balance of power in the Middle East.’  That same sanguinary stance was merrily taken by Charles Krauthammer and Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post, both proving casual about the murderous consequences of intervention.

Bloodless calculations are offered by the thinktank associates of the Henry Jackson Association in Britain that make an incursion into Syria sound like child’s play.  The first problem here is that sides are already picked.  Michael Weiss has already set his heart on the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  For one, he claims they are doing well, having ‘made great strides’ (The New Republic, Feb 9). Invariably, there is a plea for help – we, the rebels, are making gains, but need an interfering force.  ‘If no one helps us,’ claims Alaa al-Sheikh of the Khaled Bin Waleed Brigade in Rastan, ‘we can hit the regime painfully but we can’t topple it, not [when it has] jets and tanks.’

Weiss is typical in dismissing the very concerns that have come to pass every time military intervention has been embraced.  He lists them himself: proliferation of jihadist groups; regional destabilisation; the spike in sectarianism (he is genuinely blind to the way differences between the Alawite, Sunni and Christian groups have been historically resolved in the state).  And besides, the Iranians are intervening in Syrian affairs on a daily basis, deploying, according to a Syrian defector Mahmoud Haj Hamad, ‘thousands’ of ‘military consultants’ to become snipers.

Blind spots, then, are easily found.  For one thing, the motley collection of the FSA have shown no inclination to resist the urge to wreak vengeance on the minority Alawites, a sect from which Assad hails. Their complement of atrocities grows, as, incidentally, do their mendacious reports.  Then, just to prove a point, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri has decided to throw his hat into the ring, urging the rebelling ‘Lions of Syria’ to slaughter their despotic quarry.  Not for the first time, al-Qaeda and the White House find themselves snuggling up on the same page in perverse harmony.

Another aspect, and this is something Weiss himself notes without more, is that the army itself is divided and ripe for mass defection.  75 percent of personnel are confined to barracks; some two-thirds of army reservists have simply not turned up when called for duty.  The result: an army of 550,000 of which only 300,000 are available.  The rot, it seems, has truly set in, but pro-interventionists would like to dampen the wood further.

Then, the nub of the matter.  Pro-interventionists can hardly claim that intervention has worked its magic, an all-curing panacea that has brought stability to, for instance, Libya.  The report of the late and brave Anthony Shadid from Libya for the New York Times on February 9 was a horror story of crushed ambitions, summary justice affected by militias and torture. 1.

What then, can we salvage from the situation? For one thing, it is clear that the violent solution has been embraced in Syria, a customary default position for revolutionary movements in the Middle East.  But it is also clear that a mix of non-violent measures, fortified by such remarkably effective platforms as those suggested by Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, suggest a far more promising outcome. But a solution externally imposed; a solution premised on military violence that demonstrably shows that sides have been taken; a solution that sanctifies as well as demonises, is doomed to ignominious failure.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.


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