The Politics of Non-Intervention

In what could be described as the understatement of the year, one observer at the recent Geneva meeting of the ‘powers that be’ noted that ''too much blood has been shed'' concerning the worsening crisis in Syria.  Since the conflict began early last year, more than 100 000 refugees have poured over the borders of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.  More than 75 percent of these are women and children.  The longer the atrocities continue, the greater the risk it will spread throughout the Middle East.  Already, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran are funding their proxies on the ground.  But even if these countries only fight through their Syrian allies, the recent shooting down of a Turkish aircraft and mortar attacks spreading 20 kilometres across the Lebanese border demonstrate the danger of mistakes igniting a regional conflict.

It is not difficult to appreciate why NATO has thus far failed to intervene in Syria.  With the US war weary from Iraq and Afghanistan and Europe holding onto economic stability by a thread, Syria presents a headache that no one wants to deal with.  Adding to this, Russian support has ensured Syria's defence capabilities are significantly more sophisticated than those of Libya and Iraq.  Given that the army has remained largely loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, any Western intervention will incur military loses, as well as a high civilian death toll, not to mention the dramatic effect intervention will have on already tense international relations between the West and China and Russia.  Fearful of losing any influence in the region, the two Security Council members have repeatedly stated that they will not support military engagement.

Despite the immense challenges involved in humanitarian intervention, the international community legally can and morally should intervene in Syria.  The relatively recent examples of Rwanda and Darfur show that we have yet to learn from our failure to act to prevent wide-scale killings.  The United Nations Charter authorises the Security Council to use military force to confront threats to global security where peaceful means have failed.  In 2005, world leaders concluded that these threats include crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing under the ''responsibility to protect'' doctrine.  It is clear that Syria meets these requirements.

The rationale behind intervention must be to prevent crimes against humanity, not to pursue ulterior motives such as resource grabbing.  Considering the well-documented atrocities being committed in Syria, the world's humanitarian concerns are justified.  While military force must be a final and proportionate resort after peaceful options are exhausted, by his own admission, Kofi Annan's peace plan is dead and political negotiations have failed.  As such, only the minimum force necessary to stop the violence may be used.

Intervention is not a licence for regime change; however, as in Libya, it becomes unavoidable if regimes continue to brutalise their own people.  The difficulty lies in the fact that an intervention must have reasonable prospects of success.  Any intervention must be ruthlessly examined by the international community to guarantee it does not exceed its mandate.  As previously mentioned, Syria is sufficiently armed for a long conflict.  The international community needs to determine what price is worth paying and what we are prepared to live with as a result of both action and inaction.  Most problematically, an intervention must be approved by the Security Council—this is not going to happen as China and Russia are certain to veto any international intervention.

It now seems probable that the Assad regime will have to collapse before productive conversations on rebuilding a broken Syria can even begin.  In Geneva, world powers failed to reach a consensus on calling for the removal of Assad, instead agreeing on a plan for a political transition which has little to no chance of effective implementation.  It is further toothless time wasting such as this that allows Assad to continue with his stream of human rights abuses while the West looks on and promises stricter ‘observation’.  In one of the most defiant acts against international law norms, the Red Cross confirmed that its attempts to aid civilians and evacuate the wounded from the besieged city of Homs had again failed when a rescue team was prevented from entering the worst hit areas.  Towns with rebel strongholds have had electricity and water cut, and summary executions are now commonplace.  

How much more carnage must occur before someone decides that the “Never again” line so often thrown around but rarely acted upon must apply?  If the Council does not intervene, governments of moral courage may go it alone.  We have been willing to do this when oil revenues are at stake.  To fail to do so over principles of humanity shows gross moral negligence.  Sometimes, we have to pick a side, and the past has shown us that history is not kind when we sit by and do nothing.  Humanitarianism cannot remain politically neutral in conflicts where dictators continuously target innocent civilians.  Without United Nations backing, unilateral humanitarian intervention is illegal, but sometimes it’s right.

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