As I write this conflict is raging in Syria. For the past two years a vicious war has been ongoing with 100,000 killed and 2 million refugees (half of whom are children) according to the United Nations. What began as part of the Arab Spring overthrowing dictators across the Arab world has turned into a bloody and relentless civil war. Now with reports of a massacre with chemical weapons, it seems increasingly likely that Western Powers will intervene in some form in the conflict. But is this the right decision? Are we compelled to fight on behalf of Syrian civilians or will it only make the problem worse?
There is a pretty solid argument for staying out of Syria. First of all, there is a lot we don’t know. We don’t know for sure who launched the chemical attacks (though the evidence is pointing towards Assad). We don’t know who exactly will replace Assad as the opposition is a muddled group of all sorts. Most importantly of all we don’t know what sort of reaction any military force will get. Will they be welcomed or attacked? Many people are opposed to sending soldiers to die in a war they can’t understand and won’t gain from. Memories of Iraq are strong on everyone’s mind and no one wants a repeat of that disaster. The last thing we want is to be caught in another quagmire which will only result in pointless deaths, wasted resources and strengthened militant Islamists.
The strongest argument against intervening (and the reason I was opposed until recently) is that it will make the conflict worse. Without a doubt, any invasion will involve bombings that kill civilians and destroy infrastructure. This will make the Syrian people worse off in the short run and in the best case scenario, the violent dies down and the total deaths is lowered, but in the worse case it prolongs and inflames a conflict where no one gains. War is not like the movies where the hero shoots the bad guys and no one gets hurt. Thousands will die in any intervention (action could be limited to just air strikes but this will probably not be as effective at ending the war and will still cause civilian deaths).
I am a peaceful person and oppose most wars, a view that is very common in Ireland. But let us imagine for a moment what war we would find acceptable. I’m sure almost everyone would agree that we have a responsibility to prevent genocide and mass murder as what happened in the Holocaust and Rwanda. It was to the international community’s shame that they did not intervene in Rwanda. What about a war against a brutal dictator slaughtering his own people? This seems like a justifiable war, both on moral grounds to punish the perpetrator and to prevent future massacres. The question thus becomes, does Syria meet the conditions of a just war?
One thing I learned in my study of the history of interventions is that there are no clear cut rules, but rather ambiguous and arbitrary lines. How many people must die before intervention is justified? Many of my friends believe the killing of 13 people in Bloody Sunday 1972 delegitimised the Northern Irish state yet thousands have been killed in Syria. We obviously cannot intervene in every conflict around the world (there are too many) but at what point does a conflict become so big that we cannot ignore it? How do we make the cost-benefit analysis so that more people are saved than killed in our intervention? Intervention is often done by countries with ulterior motives, for example the American invasion of Iraq had the liberation of the Iraqi people as a low priority. Many people distrust the Western powers due to their disgraceful history of imperialism. That is a fair point, but if we exclude every country that has a bloody past in the 3rd World, we are left with Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Iceland and a handful of small countries not capable of launching an invasion. Every country with a sizeable military has used it for massacres at some point in time. However, we cannot change the past but we can change the future.
We would all like if there were other options. We would all prefer if the Syrian people themselves could overthrow Assad without outside help. However dictators are very good at entrenching themselves and crushing the people until they are too weak to fight back. We would prefer if peaceful negoation was possible, but Assad has ruled that out, demanding unconditional surrender. Aiding the struggle from afar through the smuggling of funds and weapons is another option that could succeed without getting the West dragged into it, but that has been tried and Assad is still holding on.
It is ironic that when reading of Darfur or Rwanda or any other example of mass murder of innocent people, reports are full of condemnation of the international community for refusing to intervene. How could the world turn a blind eye to such suffering? Yet now, once the West is preparing to stop the attacks, the same people are suddenly condemning the West for intervening. Sometimes you are damned if you and damned if you don’t. If we fail to act then decades from now we will be denounced for our callous indifference to murder.
The method of intervention is important too. It would be best if it had UN approval and as wide international support as possible. However, Russia and China do not have the right to veto the conscience of the world and hold back necessary aid. We have a duty to protect the innocent civilians of the world regardless of the barriers and ignoring the massacres would be a greater crime than acting without the support of a Communist dictatorship and a questionably free country. Likewise the ideal situation would be to put Assad on trial in the International Criminal Court to provide justice to his victims and to strike fear in the hearts of dictators the world over. It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved by air strikes alone, it probably will require troops on the ground. This will be bloodier for the West, will certainly escalate the war, though it could be safer for civilians (troops are less likely to kill civilians and can offer better protection against the Syrian government army).
The simple fact is that Assad is too well entrenched to be removed by Syrians alone. If we continue to ignore the situation, the only result will be more civilian deaths and the probable remaining in power of a dictator with blood on his hands. The chemical gas attack has galvanised world opinion. Gas cannot be excused as the usual operation of a war, or a necessary device in quelling a rebellion. No, it is a deliberate attempt to exterminate as many people as possible oblivious to the number of innocent people who will die. It is a form of murder so brutal and horrible that it has been unofficially forbidden among world powers since WW1. Close your eyes and image you are walking through the town past all the corpses. Imagine you witnesses the chemical attack? Look at these photos taken after the chemical attack, do you think we can just ignore this? Would you still claim we should ignore the problem and let the murderers go unpunished?
Some people are suspicious that Assad would do something as stupid as use chemical gas and mutter darkly about a stitch up. But since when did dictators ever act rationally and logically? They all suffer from hubris and a belief in their invincibility. If using chemical gas is a stupid move that would only provoke Western intervention, can’t the same be said about all massacres of civilians? Probably Assad assumed that as he (and his father) has gotten away with many massacres before, the West would continue their policy of non-intervnetion and continue to ignore the problem. Two years of war has gradually worn down all sides commitment to human rights and numbed their view of bloodshed. Assad is probably losing patience with the advance of his troops and wants a speedy end to the war. There is evidence that chemical gas has been used in earlier attacks and the use has only been increasing.
There is a genuine fear about what will follow an intervention and many are worried that it will strengthen Al-Queda. However, not every Muslim with a gun is a member of Al-Queda and fall into a caricature of the suspicious Arabs who all hate the West. An intervention would raise the image of the West and show that we do not solely invade in order to steal people’s oil. Ignoring the problem could lead to a repeat of Afghanistan where the bloodiest and most vicious faction won out in the end after a decade of civil war. Intervention could help tip the balance towards the democratic forces. However none of this can be predicted in advance. During the Irish War of Independence, Sinn Fein was a confused muddle of factions comprising democrats, socialists, farmers, Catholic fanatics, traditionalists, bigots and future Fascists. I doubt anyone could have predicted that a stable and peaceful democratic state would emerge from this motley crew (and it took over a decade before politics did stabilise). The point is that revolution are always confused affairs with a wide range of different groups with different aims in temporary alliance against a common enemy. Eastern Europe took over a decade to come to terms with its revolution that overthrew Communism and some say they still have not.
At the end of the day, it comes down to how you view the world. Are we separate nationalities, spate people who should stay apart or are we all one? Are we all part of a common humanity where an attack on one is an attack on all? Does great power come with great responsibility and do we in the West have a Responsibility To Protect the weak and vulnerable in the world as a result of our privilege and power? If those were our houses bombed, our friends killed our neighbours oppressed by a dictator, would we want to world to turn its back and ignore us? Do we want to live in a world where mass slaughter is allowed without punishment and dictators can continue to sit on their blood soaked thrones? Or do we want to be part of a world that refuses to tolerate the gassing of innocent civilians and struggle to free the oppressed people of the world and help them fight for their freedom?
I know what my answer is, its up to you to decide what yours is.