Thoughts on Syria.

[Reposted with edits from January]

The Security Council finally met as a result of the Arab League’s decision to pull out of Syria and suspend its observation mission. It referred the matter to the Council for the first time, and so Western states worked to get a Resolution passed condemning the Assad regime in the most aggressive language yet. Russia vowed to veto it.

Clinton justified the move in a way that invokes very little moral rhetoric, and stays strictly concerned with the question of stability:

The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region.

This is interesting because on the issue of the Security Council using force, the UN Charter only has provisions for issues involving international ‘peace and security’. In the past, humanitarian concerns have thus been cashed out with reference to this phrase. Here, there is little attempt to talk first of the moral issues at stake.

Contrast that with Hague’s interview on Sky News, where he does explain the reason for the Council’s meeting by referencing the ‘appalling’ acts of violence perpetrated by the Assad regime on a daily basis.

Hague also stresses the fact that it is the Arab League that have called on the UN to act. Clinton mentioned this multiple times. She noted:

The Arab League is backing a resolution that calls on the international community to support its ongoing efforts, because the status quo is unsustainable.

There are several reasons for emphasising this, but no doubt the main thought is that it helps to keep at bay suspicions that this is a Western, imperialist, hegemonic project. Since we sat back as the relevant regional organisation observed, and only now become more active upon that organisation’s request, an aura of increased legitimacy is inevitable. This fits Jennifer Welsh’s suggestion that a norm seems to be implicit at the moment: without authorisation by a regional authority, UN action on a regional security issue cannot be legitimate.

The Resolution proposed is available here. A few things to note:

  1. This is a Chapter VI motion, which means no coercive enforcement powers are being invoked and we’re staying strictly in the realm of calls for peaceful dispute settlement. This should help to calm Russia down, but also note the Resolution does not explicitly rule out military intervention in the future, if the Council so wished.
  2. Paragraph 3 refers very generically to condemning all ‘armed groups’. Again, a pander to Russia that gives the brief appearance of neutrality between the violence caused by Assad and the opposition. But given the feel of the rest of the Resolution, this rings rather hollow.
  3. Paragraph 7 speaks very boldly of calls for regime change, and a democratic transition at that. So much for calming Russia down.

On the question of Russia’s role here, note the awkwardness of Hague’s interview. He’s asked what the point of the Resolution is given they will veto it, and, true to form, he tells us what is probably the truth: we’ll be forcing them to play their hand and shout out to the world that they’re the only ones standing between the status quo and a unanimous UN Resolution denouncing a tyrannical regime. And this is awkward precisely because this is what Russia itself is! It can hardly get all moralising and humanitarian on Syria’s ass because it knows, if necessary, it would take such action itself.

The potential for logical hypocrisy isn’t the only thing holding Russia back though. I imagine that factor is accompanied by several other considerations making the veto a ‘wise’ choice:

  1. America-bashing is cheap but great political point scoring. There’s nothing better than reinforcing the image to one’s population that you’re standing alone with your own will and hindering the imperialist bastards.
  2. Arms deals, worth billions.
  3. And – see the same article – a naval base resting on a warm water port.
  4. Perhaps a touch less cynically, Russia might also have genuine concerns about a slippery slope in which the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention – upon which so much peace since World War 2 has surely rested – is being slowly eroded by such humanitarian concerns. If the precedent becomes too robust, what’s left to prevent a downward spiral back into full-scale global conflict?

Which brings us finally to the question – why is the West not pushing for military intervention as it did in Libya?

As already noted, it is only now that the Arab League has referred the regional case to the Council, and current norms suggest they would not consider such action until this decision was made. But it admittedly seems to be the case that even now there is little drive for the type of action we saw against Gaddaffi. So again, why is this so?

The evidence suggests that media coverage is crucial to triggering the domestic will necessary in a democracy to make leaders want to take action. And in the Syrian scenario, we don’t have the same nightly footage of bloodbaths, and Assad is hardly the belligerent and memorably imposing figure that Gaddaffi was. As long as the media struggles to show us what is happening and how upsetting it is, it’s unlikely that our leaders will want to act.

This is especially true given that America will surely refuse to make the first move. As with Libya, Obama will want to preserve the image of a refined America, no longer wanting to play the boisterous global bully it did during the Bush years. The will would have to begin, once more, in Europe, and for now Merkozy seem to have what they deem bigger fish to fry.

But what certainly seems to be the case is that if the will arose, the inability to get Council approval because of a sole veto from Russia would not stop action. As demonstrated by Kosovo, NATO allies are more than happy to pursue what they deem to be moral interventions if a near unanimous global consensus backs them. And in the post-Soviet age, there would be nobody with the military might to stop them.


Syria, continued.


Muqawama calls for more thought about how any possible intervention could even work:

Analysts who argue either for or against military intervention have an obligation to sketch out the ways in which one could possibly intervene so that we can determine which ways, if any, make sense given the circumstances… regional specialists rarely understand military capabilities and options well enough to make an argument for or against, and those who understand military capabilities and options rarely understand the regional dynamics well enough to make an argument for or against. It is important, in that context, for scholars to work collaboratively to complement areas of expertise.

Lynch adds to the cries for caution:

I do not believe that we are heading for the direct American military intervention for which a vocal, if small, band of liberal hawks yearn, however.  Nor should there be one.  No advocate of American military intervention has yet offered any suggestions of how specific actions might actually produce the desired goals given the nature of the fighting. Air strikes and no-fly zones can not tip the balance in a civil war environment fought in densely populated urban areas where the U.S. lacks reliable human intelligence; recall that an air campaign took six months to succeed in Libya under much more favorable conditions.  Safe area and humanitarian corridor proposals remain impractical.  Advocates of military action should not be allowed to dodge the question of the likely escalation to ground forces — which virtually everyone agrees would be disastrous — after the alternatives fail. And there is zero political appetite for a military intervention:  it is difficult to miss that every single speaker at the United Nations, including the Arab League and Qatar, explicitly ruled one out.

Wright thinks America needs to get off its pathetic moral high horse:

Imagine if the U.S. had a naval base in some Arab country and popular unrest threatened the regime, which then set out to suppress the unrest. Oh, wait–you don’t have to imagine that; it actually happened last year, in Bahrain. And the US wasted no time in deserting the people in favor of the regime, even as some of those people were being killed or tortured.

Foust argues NATO’s action on Libya is to blame for Security Council silence now:

A big reason for Russia and China’s intransigence is the NATO coalition that led the intervention, which badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention. Russia was an early critic of such actions as France’s weapons shipments to the rebels — criticism that could have been accounted for (Moscow never made any secret of its concerns) but which seemed to be ignored in the rush to intervene. President Obama made a rapid transition from saying“regime change is not on the table” last March (part of the bargain to get Russian abstention from the UNSC vote) to publicly calling for his ouster. France and the UK used similar language, ignoring the politics of getting UN approval for intervention.

Walt agrees:

what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren’t playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored “regime change.” It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.

Bonicelli does his best to explain the surprise Chinese veto:

the best explanation is inertia; China defines its national interest — apart from its freedom to engage in commerce wherever it can — according to the principle of non-intervention. Its reaction to the Syria situation is like its reaction to every other such situation: everyone should mind his own business, we like things as they are.

Syria, continued.

Slaughter spots a chance to repair reputations:

If the Arab League, the U.S., the European Union, Turkey, and the UN Secretary General spend a year wringing their hands as the death toll continues to mount, the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine will be exposed as a convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics, feeding precisely the cynicism and conspiracy theories in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. spends its public diplomacy budget and countless diplomatic hours trying to debunk.

Martin insists that intervention could never hide a fundamental hypocrisy:

the US does actually support (and lavish aid on, and sell arms to, etc.) undemocratic states in the region with atrocious human rights records, including states like Yemen and Bahrain that violently suppressed pro-democracy movements during the recent, and ongoing, Arab Spring uprisings. Not only did we not have a responsibility to protect those beleaguered populations, apparently, but we feel justified in green-lighting large arms sales to at least one of the regimes in question.

Goldberg wonders why the West won’t call Russia’s bluff and offer language ruling out intervention, given they’re never going to consider it anyway. If it secures Russian abstention, then what would there be to lose?

Ethical window dressing.

Greenwald plays the cynic on Libyan intervention:

They are almost always sold by appeal to human rights concerns — Iraqi babies pulled from incubators and Saddam’s rape rooms — but that is very rarely their actual objective. When the West invokes human rights concerns to justify an attack on a dictator whom it has long tolerated (and often even supported), that is rather compelling evidence that human rights is the packaging for the war, not the goal. The fact that it is not the goal means more than just another war sold deceitfully based on pretexts: it means that human rights concerns will not drive what happens after the invasion is completed. The materials interests of the invaders are highly likely to be served, but not the human rights of the people of the invaded country.

On Syria and Iran:

Obviously, the regimes in both of those countries are serious human rights abusers, but no more so (and, compared to Iran, less) than some of the U.S.’s closest allies in that region. Although it will be easy to sell, the U.S. is not interested in regime change in those two countries because of human rights or democracy concerns; its steadfast support for the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other repressive tyrants conclusively proves that.

The link on ‘material interests’ is to an NYT article highlighting American business interests now being pursued in post-Gaddafi Libya, and so the implication is that since intervention in Libya was so ad hoc, it evidently wasn’t for the professed reasons of protecting civilians. Rather, this was just a cover for the carving out of some investment opportunities.

Oh, please. What kind of loopy causal story is Greenwald envisioning here? The White House ponders contributing to a third US military intervention in a decade in Islamic affairs, and they decide to gamble on action on the basis that some American businesses might do well if they pull it off. So Obama is an amoral fraud who lied through his teeth. He has no concern for the slaughter of civilians, and conducts foreign policy only on the basis of a financial calculus.

The fact that only Libya was intervened in does nothing to show the reasons given were lies. Indeed, given the conspiratorial nature of the alternative hypothesis, the moral language being genuine seems hugely plausible. The ad hoc nature of the intervention can reflect a lot of things: the realities of the potential for Council approval if multiple interventions were attempted and a precedent was seemingly established  (China would veto it in a second); the desire to avoid perpetuating the image of America as imperial, global hegemon; and, indeed, military interests which no doubt explained the silence on Bahrain, given the US base there.

But how does a concern for strategic interests in Bahrain show that the concern for rebels being massacred in Libya was utterly fake? People who insist on seeing moral language in foreign policy in this way cannot make sense of the world. They cannot explain why such an elaborate normative vocabulary would be constructed and so consistently used, given it is allegedly so easy to see through. They cannot explain interventions in places like Somalia, unless some tenuous business transaction can be dug up. They cannot explain the sanctions on South Africa during Apartheid. The US lost millions in trade as a consequence of this, so if Greenwald is right, why would they bother? That this school of thought is known in academic circles as ‘realism’ is quite laughable.

Syria, intervention and the Arab League.

Jennifer Welsh – my tutor – explores the issue. She explains the original role envisioned for regional organisations by the UN’s founders:

The original United Nations Charter, in Chapter VIII, envisaged a collective security architecture in which regional organizations would take the lead. Indeed, some scholars have long argued that collective security can only be regional, since it is simply not credible to ask countries from across the world to bring their military forces to bear on a security threat that does not directly affect them.

Hence the centrality of the Arab League to events in Syria, but also, it’s easy to forget, events in Libya. She identifies what seems to be a new Security Council precedent set by the Arab Spring:

without an explicit request from the Arab League, the council would never have authorized NATO to use “all necessary measures” to prevent the slaughter of civilians in Libya (partly out of fear of being associated with a neo-colonial intervention). The consent of regional organizations, it seems, has become a necessary precondition for global action.

Syrian intervention?

Cook is skeptical of the claim that Assad’s demise is only a matter of time, a claim made by the media establishment in every article on Syria I’ve read in the past three months:

Ultimately, it seems that Assad still has bullets left, people to resupply him when his stocks run low, and loyal officers to fire them. What more does he really need? Under what circumstances is Assad’s fall “only a matter of when and not if,” as the foreign policy comminity seems to have decided?

Ignoring the fact that this ‘lesson’ was forgotten in the case of Libya, he also questions the logic of appealing to the shambles of Iraq in ’03 to justify leaving Assad well alone:

There are actually few analogies to the Iraq experience. Unlike Saddam at the time of the invasion, Assad is engaged in the mass killing of his own people; unlike Operation Iraqi Freedom, there is a chance that the Arab League would support a humanitarian intervention in Syria, and any military operations could be undertaken multilaterally. Getting a UN Security Council resolution would be tough given Chinese and especially Russian opposition, but without being too Rumsfeldian, does every military intervention require a UN writ? It is certainly preferable, but not a requirement.

My guess is that blaming the US in any way here is difficult because, as in the case of Libya, Obama will be very reluctant to lead the way and play up the boisterous hegemonic image of imperialism Bush managed to create in a Presidency of bad PR moves. And that’s no bad thing, is it? I certainly don’t like the idea of the US leading the way in refusing to play by Security Council rules yet again. So the onus, really, is on Europe. The question should be why Cameron and Sarkozy have no appetite, and admittedly there it’s hard to see, both technically and morally, what’s so different about Assad.

Quote for the day.

“The strong do what they want, and the weak endure the consequences”.

Thucydides, 400 BC.

I just came across this in the context of an article from 2005 on realist conceptions of power, when international relations theorists had the US invasion of Iraq, contrary to UN Security Council dictates, very much on the mind.

More on international relations theory with a little puzzle later.