By: David Faris
In the wake of a chemical weapons attack on civilians outside Damascus allegedly perpetrated by the embattled regime of Bashar Al-Assad, President Obama has announced his intention to launch limited air strikes against the Syrian regime. Claiming that Assad had crossed a global “red line,” Obama vowed to enforce international “norms” against the use of chemical weapons and will seek authorization from Congress for military action.
If Russia’s recent diplomatic gambit doesn’t resolve the issue, Congress must say no. In wading into the thicket of Syrian politics, Obama would have to contend not just with the disgraced Assad and his klepto-homicidal minority regime, but with the ghosts of the First World War, a conflict whose last veteran has long since passed on but whose destructive legacy still haunts the Middle East in quite tangible ways.
In the aftermath of The Great War in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson sent a delegation led by Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King and Chicago businessman Charles Crane to the Middle East to help determine what the victorious allied powers should do with former lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire then held by British and French forces. While the report noted that Syrians clearly yearned for independence, the King-Crane Commission determined that it was the Americans who should be given a ‘mandate’ – basically a limited writ of tutelary sovereignty over a territory until self-governance could be safely established – by the new League of Nations, rather than the British or the French.
Like most of the recommendations of most of the commissions sent by colonialists to the Middle East, the findings of the King-Crane Commission were tossed away. The French got the mandate, crushed the authority of the Arab leader Faisal Ibn Husayn (who was later plopped implausibly onto the throne of Iraq by the British) and immediately set about drawing new and nonsensical international borders.
At first they created a federation that set aside separate states for multiple minorities, including the Alawites, but ultimately only two countries emerged from the French Mandate: Syria and Lebanon, the latter designed to satisfy the demands of the region’s Christians, who had long dreamed of their own state.
Over the past 70 years, both Lebanon and Syria have failed thoroughly to devise acceptable institutional arrangements to resolve the fundamental puzzle of their existence. In Lebanon, that struggle resulted in a horrific 15-year sectarian civil war beginning in 1976 and a chaotic communal stalemate that persists today.
In Syria, however, the Assad family, who are Alawites – an offshoot of Shia Islam – has controlled the country since 1970, arrogating power to a narrow, sectarian elite and excluding the majority Sunni Muslims as well as a tapestry of other ethnicities and religious groups from both power and influence. At the same time, the regime’s ruthlessness largely prevented the outbreak of sectarian violence that Syria’s borders and demography plainly invite.
The Arab Spring – a series of peaceful protests that began in Tunisia and quickly spread to nearly every country in the Middle East – arrived in Syria in March 2011. Peaceful protestors were met with pitiless violence, and soon the situation deteriorated into a civil war, with a variety of opposition groups vying with Assad and his remaining loyal forces for that great prize of the contemporary world – control of a state. The Assad regime’s hold over Syrian territory gradually eroded as the war took on an increasingly sectarian character.
Just as in Algeria and Somalia in the 1990s, and Iraq and Mali in the 2000s, the collapse of central state authority and the spread of violence predictably drew Islamist extremists from both inside and outside of Syria into the maelstrom, complicating the ideal picture of peaceful activists versus ruthless state authority. These bleak fundamentalists have managed to thrust some Syrians who would otherwise be in rebellion back into the waiting arms of the Assads, particularly some Christians who would feel menaced living under a government comprised of the leading rebel groups.
As the killing has dragged on over more than two years and claimed over 100,000 lives, it has become increasingly difficult for the United States and its allies to countenance both the continued bloodshed, as well as the potential for wider regional instability. At the same time, uncertainty about the motivations of certain Islamist opposition groups has tempered the enthusiasm of the Western powers for intervention, fearful of replacing one tyranny with another, even less tolerant, one. And the conflict lacked any international legal casus belli that would legitimate a military response.
The Syrian army’s alleged chemical attack on a Damascus suburb August 21st, which was by all accounts horrific, thus provided the pretext for a reluctant Obama to intervene. Assad’s regime had been deploying chemical weapons in the field throughout the year, but none provided the kind of evidence needed to convince global elites that they were taking place. Yet such attacks do not clearly violate international law. Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Geneva Protocol of 1925 applies only to the use of such weapons in international conflicts.
Still, the matter could be referred to the United Nations Security Council even without an obvious breach of existing treaties. The trap is that intervention would only be considered legal if the Security Council authorizes the use of force, which both Russia and China would likely veto. This means that suddenly it is interventionist left-of-center liberals like Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the U.N., who are now castigating the world body as a do-nothing distraction, using language similar to that deployed by Bush-era neoconservatives to justify an end-run around international law.
Leaving aside the problematic moral distinction between chemical and other types of weapons (and the problematic legal authority of the Security Council), the bigger difficulty with a limited bombing campaign is that it is unlikely to accomplish anything tangible for the suffering Syrians and highly likely to raise tension between the United States and the emerging great powers. That tension is based not just on Russia’s long-standing relationship with the Assads that dates to the Cold War, but on differing interpretations of sovereignty. Russia and China both appear to subscribe to a notion of state sovereignty that can only be undermined by clear-cut instances of genocide.
Both countries operate huge, polyglot empires disguised as nation-states, and thus have an obvious interest in maintaining an international norm against intervening in domestic conflicts. Members of the Obama Administration, on the other hand, appear to believe in a new doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which calls for external intervention when civilian populations are menaced by threats that may fall short of the technical definition of genocide. The interplay between these two competing visions of the international order will affect global politics for decades to come.
To the question, “To intervene or not to intervene?” the American people have replied with a resounding ‘no.’ At a time when the cost of a few days of military operations in Syria could cover the entire budget shortfall of Detroit, there is little appetite for renewed adventurism in the Middle East. And in the wake of the 10-year debacle in Iraq and the ongoing failure to perform “nation-building” in Afghanistan, there is deep skepticism that the United States is wise, omnipotent and well intentioned enough to accomplish anything there anyway.
In recommending an American Mandate for Syria in 1919, King and Crane wrote that the Syrian people trusted the United States and, “believed in her unselfish aims in the war and that she was now seeking for no share in the spoils of the war.” Like the bombing campaign proposed by Obama, the American Mandate for Syria was to be impossibly altruistic and limited in duration. Then as now, influential Americans have deluded themselves into believing that our ‘assistance’ is desired, and furthermore that our actions will have the desired effect.
In any case, intervention that falls short of resolving the Syrian crisis is unworthy of the cost in lives and treasure. And as we cannot fix Syria any more than we were capable of fixing Iraq and Afghanistan, the only sensible option, however morally unsatisfying, is not to intervene at all.