Syria – missed opportunities and future perils

One cannot deny that action in Syria is long-overdue. The question that remains –  which is currently being debated by Western power-brokers – is what form such action should take.

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By Chris Davey

To speak of an international community now, would be as farcical as it was in 1994 Rwanda. However, one cannot deny that action in Syria is long-overdue. The question that remains – which is currently being debated by Western power-brokers – is what form such action should take.

Firstly, it must register that Syrian military and pro-Assad forces have been killing civilians in a violent response to nonviolent uprising since 2011/2012. This is where the raison d’etat for the violent resistance comes in, and has since evolved into fighting an all-out civil war, often in just as horrific terms. (A prior post has clearly spelled out the level of violence that has been ongoing.) As of now the enduring lesson that should be gleamed from Syria is that the time to offer strategic and political support was in the first year of the uprising when nonviolent action could have been upheld as an emerging international standard for humanitarian responses. This probably would not have required troops on the ground nor drones in the air, but much harder pressing of Syria’s international backers and greater relief and aid to those now disenfranchised and made refugees. Many of the latter have now been fundamentalized into the arms of violent resistance and even extremist Islamism. There are countless examples of how international pressure can bring to bear the negotiation of dictators (Serbia, Philippines, Chile, Indonesia, etc.)

Sadly, though, this is in the past, and a resounding lesson from history, if one has ears to hear. The burning question is what to do now, or perhaps what not to do. The calamities of engaging the Syrian Air Force and strategic military targets would be borne by the civilians in Syria themselves. Sociologist and genocide scholar Martin Shaw, amongst others, has frankly described the problem of the West’s new war, or ‘risk-transfer’ war. Here the burden of ‘morally’ justified humanitarian intervention is shouldered by civilians on the ground while targets are destroyed, along with infrastructure, by air. It should be clear, in case one is is any doubt, that aerial warfare (like that of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, WWII, Kosovo, Libya, etc.) does not protect civilians, it simply allows the intervener to preserve the lives of those who have contractually obligated themselves into military service. A cold political calculation indeed. This is what will happen, amongst other possible perilous outcomes, in Syria is airborne intervention is pursued by the West.

If one were to follow the obligation laid out in the doctrinal principals of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) (the buzz-word of the Libyan intervention) ensuring valid results from the weapons inspectors and truly exhausting harder diplomatic and political solutions would be the current step. If it were necessary to militarily intervene then the model of the Australian led intervention into East Timor would serve well: peacekeeping forces on the ground to dispel violent forces and ensure the protection of civilians. Whilst this model may be objectionable on the grounds of comparable levels of armaments (nationalists and Indonesian forces were not as well armed as the Syrians are now), it provides, politically and morally, for the best long term option. The latter is clearly demanded by the restraints of R2P and not best served by risk-transfer, aerial warfare.

Another question that should burn for those in favour of more politically successful methods: has nonviolence failed? This is perhaps the wrong question to ask. What opportunities of peace and political transition were missed when nonviolence was pursued by the resistance in Syria? How can international networks and institutions be better equipped to support and rally to political causes for rights and democracy? What restriction on arms trading can be innovated to prevent armies in Egypt and Syria from being the main power-retainers in transitional polities?

These queries and more should be pondered if we care anything about brothers and sisters being brutally murdered and caught in the crossfire of violent conflict.

Chris Davey will be a PhD candidate in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford this September. He previously received a Masters at Kingston University in Human Rights and Genocide Studies, and has taught in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Utah Valley University. He currently researches mass violence and identity in the Great Lakes region.

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