September 1, 2011 | Standpoint

Syria Business

September 1, 2011 | Standpoint

Syria Business

Last March, President Barack Obama explained that the US military had participated in a UN-authorised mission to protect Libyan civilians from the wrath of Libya's regime. He offered a powerful rationale for humanitarian intervention in the face of the brutal onslaught of a dictatorship against its own people. The President said: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte [North Carolina] — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

When it comes to humanitarian intervention, it appears that size really does matter. Killing a few may not warrant Nato strikes. Killing hundreds — and threatening to massacre the population of a town the size of Charlotte — apparently justifies military intervention. Benghazi was spared the “massacre that would have reverberated across the region” by the intervention of US and other allied forces. With Nato patrolling the Libyan skies since late March, Western consciences managed to avoid the problem that Obama so eloquently invoked — although Libya's civil war has left countless victims. Muammar Gaddafi held on to power much longer than expected; and his opponents are not exactly liberal democrats.

Assuming that the size of the impending catastrophe is a factor in Obama's doctrine of humanitarian intervention, the question must be asked: why Benghazi but not Hama, Homs or Latakia in Syria? Both Hama and Homs are also cities nearly the size of Charlotte, which has just over 700,000 residents. So is Latakia, at 655,000. In all three cities and many other places, a ferocious onslaught continues. A humanitarian catastrophe — nearly 20,000 refugees, to mention one figure among the gruesome details emerging from Syria — has occurred. So where are the cavalry and where is our conscience?

It is entirely possible that the opposition to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is, like that of its Libyan counterparts, not entirely attuned to Jeffersonian democracy and Western standards of human rights. To be fair, Obama offered other arguments for intervention in Libya, which, by implication, appeared to show where and when it would be ruled out. There is no guarantee that the Libyan rebels will be a better friend of the West than Gaddafi was — the mid — August trip by a Libya Transitional Council delegation to Tehran does not augur well. Neither does the persistent flow of arms from Libya to Gaza, but then Western intervention gives clout to influence the transition. Libya's experience should be proof of the desirability of Western interference with Syria, not the opposite.

There are, understandably, powerful constraints when it comes to Syria. There are Russian and Chinese vetoes to shield Syria; there are limited military resources available; and there are fears of Syria imploding into sectarian violence if the regime collapses, with momentous regional repercussions.

Ultimately, events in Libya, a country on the remote periphery of the Arab world and a cultural backwater, have no significant consequences beyond its own borders. The symbolism of a popular uprising toppling a tyrant will no doubt reverberate across the region. But the Arab world has witnessed violent transitions before; it has yet to see one end in an order that respects human rights and democratic aspirations. There is also no guarantee that the victors' justice will be magnanimous on the vanquished-Arab historical precedent is strong on revenge, weak on mercy. What will our consciences say, then, if the regime's cronies and their families are subjected to the same kind of brutality they had inflicted on their enemies while in power?

A collapse of the Syrian regime, by contrast, could have dramatic consequences,  aside from its humanitarian dimension. Iran would lose its only Arab ally — no wonder it has been propping up Damascus  since the beginning of the uprising. Lebanon might be snatched back from Iranian influence, and the terror organisations that Damascus hosts would be weakened.

Finally, it appears that Assad's decision to develop a nuclear programme — recall Israel's mysterious air raid in September 2007 against what the International Atomic Energy Agency now calls a clandestine nuclear reactor — was not thanks to the scientific prowess of his scientists or the sophistication of Syria's industrial complex. It was a project produced by North Korean scientists and financed by Iran, a sort of surrogate motherhood that Syria agreed to in order to give Iran a back-up nuclear option in case its own was targeted by Israel or the US. If Assad goes, so does Iran's nuclear fallback.

In short, it will take more than Obama's belated call last month for Assad to go to produce a policy that will ensure that Syria is not left with a tyrant in power, with our interests left in tatters.

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