John Aziz

Syria & the Return of Liberal Interventionism

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It seems that the old doctrines of so-called liberal intervention have returned, reborn in the rhetoric and policies of Barack Obama and David Cameron.

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I don’t know which side of the Syrian Civil War used chemical weapons most recently. Both sides have access to them, to different degrees, as the rebels have taken over a number of former Syrian army bases. There have been accusationsthat the rebels have used them in the past. Certainly, if Bashar al-Assad’s regime is to survive, the last thing he would do is try to bring the United States and Britain into the war, and the first thing that would do that is the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, the first thing the rebels — who have been largely outgunned recently by the Syrian government — want is Libyan-style direct US and British assistance. Is it possible that the rebels hit a target with chemical weapons and blamed it on the Syrian government? I’d say it is possible — especially given the history of some rebel groups trying to kill foreign media with the same aim — but really there is no clear evidence for precisely who is responsible.

And I don’t know which side of the Syrian Civil War shot at the UN inspectors who visited the chemical weapons attack site. It could conceivably have been the government, or the rebels, or a crazed individual. Again, the rebels have an incentive to inflame the situation to draw in the United States and Britain, but there is no clear evidence.

Yet it seems that the United States and Britain are ready to go to war to remove Assad from power. I don’t think this is a good idea.  In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, well, Syria has already experienced a massive and deadly civil war. Huge amounts of damage has been done to Syria’s infrastructure, economy and human population. Could a US-led intervention reduce future, greater damage? I have no idea; there is little scientific basis to make such a judgment. But going by the past examples of US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, I sincerely doubt it. Having US forces on the ground simply unifies and radicalises the opposition like al-Qaeda and deposed elements of the government. The US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was correlated with more destruction and upheaval than under the prior regimes. While a ground-based or mostly air-based US intervention might bring the civil war to a swifter close, it might lead to greater turbulence and upheaval and terrorism after the war ends. And on the other hand, if things go wrong — like if Iran or Russia and even greater concentrations of radical Muslim fighters are also sucked into the conflict — the outcome could be far longer and deadlier than if the Syrian civil war ran its own course.

The best hope, in my view, remains that the international community devote the resources they might otherwise devote to bombing the Assad regime to helping the millions of refugees who have been displaced and harmed in the course of the war, and to brokering negotiations between the Syrian government and the rebels without preconditions. In these respects, the international community can be an undoubted help to the Syrian people.

But in reality, it seems that the old doctrines of so-called liberal intervention have returned, reborn in the rhetoric and policies of Barack Obama and David Cameron — two individuals who have both at times expressed scepticism toward notions of liberal interventionism in word, but not so much in deed. In my view, killing for peace is an impossible contradiction except in self-defense. While liberal interventionists like Samantha Power are right to believe that the West dramatically failed the people of Rwanda during the genocide, it was not sufficient military interventionism that was missing but sufficient humanitarian intervention. With 1.5 million refugees already displaced in the civil war — a figure that is sure to increase with US-led military intervention and regime change — Syria is shaping up to be a humanitarian disaster too.

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