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To Intervene or Not…

April 25, 2012

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Sarajevo commemorates the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war: 11,541 red chairs placed in the street to remember those slain in the conflict. Read more

There is a blog I’ve been following very closely on Foreign Policy‘s website, entitled Mladic in The Hague. It follows the ongoing trial of Ratko Mladic, the former Serbian General who facilitated the mass murder of civilians at Srebrenica in 1995. I find it interesting for two reasons. One being that I find that most politically minded people (myself included) are woefully misinformed about the conflicts that erupted in the Balkans during the post-Soviet era. Many in my generation seem to think of the 1990’s as some tranquil respite between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, and I think its important to know just how false this assumption is. Second, I believe that the events in the Balkans, along with those in Rwanda and Sierra Leone bare important lessons for the modern international community.

“You’re talking about Syria aren’t you?”

To be honest, Syria is a question I’ve felt very torn about over the last few months. Part of me has always thought that some sort of intervention might become necessary, especially in light of the increasing death toll and the inevitable instability a civil war would cause in the region. In the absence of UN action, my colleague here has suggested re-introducing the International Brigades as an alternative to formal intervention by nation-states. Though this is an interesting concept, I obviously think that organized international humanitarian action would be much more effective. That, and I’ve never been convinced by the argument which says because we are an “evil, Western, capitalist nation that bears the guilt of historical imperialism” we are obligated to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about future world conflicts. In other words, I don’t think that because Western nations have acted poorly in the past, we are not allowed to try and do good in the present. After all, if that logic was followed in every case, Mladic would not be on trial in the first place. And even if you find yourself skeptical of the Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P) doctrine, if we have the power to stop mass slaughter of innocent civilians, would it not be a crime on our part not to use it?

However, it is important to remember that Syria in 2012 is not Bosnia in 1995 (or Kosovo in 1998 for that matter). In another article in Foreign Policy this February, David Rieff gives a skeptical and cautionary note that

Infatuated by their own good intentions — and persuaded that their interventionist views incarnate a higher morality — those who view Libya as a triumph and Syria as an opportunity to cement the practice of humanitarian intervention are in full crusading mode. If the looming victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the failure of the democratic project in Iraq, and the fact that the most significant political outcomes of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have been instability and the victory of political Islam have not chastened them — and clearly they haven’t — nothing will.

Earlier in the article, he also notes the possible insertion of Al Qaeda-friendly factions into the conflict which could make the potential for disaster even more imminent if the West was to get involved. I think such skeptical voices, so long as they are not in open appeasement of dictators like Assad, are worth noting. In the post KONY-2012 era, its important for those in the West with good intentions not to turn into “armchair interventionists”, or “slackavists” without examining the complexities involved in military action.

To call Syria a “complicated situation” would be a massive understatement, and to propose simple solutions would be an obvious and naive mistake. I doubt anyone in the Foreign Policy community actually took Kofi Annan seriously when he tried to negotiate an April 10th cease-fire. According to an article in this week’s issue of The Economist:

Since the fighting supposedly stopped on April 12th at least 100 more Syrians have died, pushing the toll in 13 months above 10,000. Government forces are again shelling Homs, the country’s battered third city. Residents of the north-west province of Idleb report fresh executions by regime thugs.

Another solution, proposed by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is to act as a partner to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Basically, we would indicate to both nations their common responsibilities in the region and back whatever plan they propose for a negotiated peace. Though I guess we can be less wary about the Turks, can we really trust the Saudi’s? With its connection to radical Islamist groups, can we really rely on the Saudi Royal family in this situation? While I respect his credentials in this matter, I’m bothered by his insistence that we refer to the Saudi government as our “Ally”.

I think James Harkin has summarized the situation best here:

Syria is currently exhibiting a brand new irony of our post-war-on-terror era. The secular Syrian liberals and leftist groups that have most in common in Western values don’t want NATO intervention, while it’s exactly the kind of people who don’t much like us — the aging remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the newer, more radical Sunni salafists — who are begging for our help.

Oh, great.

Is there any hope for Syria? Or is the World left with only bad options and “less bad” ones?

What do you think?

Spot Illustration by Wesley Ryan Clapp, inspired by the murder of 13 year old Hamza al-Khatib on April 29, 2011.

(For another solid piece of analysis I recommend this article by Bruce Jones. He outlines a possible plan similar to that employed in East Timor in the late-90’s while examining many of the difficulties of this option. Can you tell I’m a big fan of Foreign Policy?)

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