The Devil you Know

Since the moment the rebel movement in Libya began to coalesce into a serious threat to the regime, and the simultaneously defiant and violent response of Qaddafi spelled out the future that we have since seen unfold, the debate over the correct course of action raged in every medium. As it raged, particularly during the initial days of the bombing campaign, I would venture that perpetually somewhere, on some social network, in some op-ed, someone was justifying their opposition to the engagement in terms roughly adhering to the statement that ‘if we aren’t engaging (or willing to engage) against all oppressive dictatorships, then we shouldn’t engage in Libya.’

Obviously, this appeal to unobtainable perfection is fallacious, but the feeling that NATO is taking a selective and cynical approach to its implementation of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is becoming more pressing by the day. Aside from the obvious muteness of the alliance in response to the crackdown in Bahrain and the increasing problems in Yemen, with each day news arrives of more violence from the Assad regime in Syria. Why aren’t we intervening? Yesterday, reports revealed the killings of at least 72 in Syria, taking the death toll to 260 since protests started. No doubt these figures are conservative. Are the desperate clampdowns of the hereditary authoritarian presidency and Syria’s brutal mukhabarat not enough to prompt our sending some sort of help to the people?

Equivocation over this subject is rife, from Hilary Clinton to Nick Clegg, evasion is the dish of the day. A linguistic fudging of the issue in a Washington Post headline provoked a sharp reply from Elliot Abrams at CFR, and the points he raises with regards to Syria are good ones. Syria is a supporter of Hizbullah and a close ally of Iran, it has an appalling human rights record and was no doubt a conduit of instability in Iraq. It would not be a sad thing to be part of the decline of this regime. Two things hold us back: fear, and practicality.

Fear, so neatly laced into Robert Kaplan’s piece for Foreign Policy, that we just don’t know what would be left if we took the regime away. Syria has a notoriously shaky national identity. Sunni, Druze, Alawites and Christian minorities all inhabit the “hodge-podge” country. Brutal repression under a strong dictator whilst identifying ‘Syria’ with state policies, as the “throbbing heart” of long dead Arab nationalism, the most recalcitrant state players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and part of a greater bilad as-sham, have all played their part in coalescing Syrians around a national idea, but how strongly? Though some argue that those of the new generation driving the protests have grown up as Syrians and have no ulterior Islamist or irredentist motives, simply seeing themselves as demanding reform in one country, historical accident or otherwise as that country may be, would those driving the protests be the ones forming the new state though? As Kaplan notes:

“Syria at this moment in history constitutes a riddle. Is it, indeed, prone to civil conflict as the election results of the 1940s and 1950s indicate; or has the population quietly forged a national identity in the intervening decades, if only because of the common experience of living under an austere dictatorship? No Middle East expert can say for sure.”

More dully, practical interests must also take their place here too. Whilst the point clearly serves the interest of an administration keen to not get dragged into further controversial foreign operations, Hilary Clinton’s observation that every part of this ‘Arab spring’ is different bears truth. Moreover, as she notes, Qaddafi used heavy armour and air power against his people in a way not yet seen in Syria. As easy as this is to rubbish as devoid of ethical standards (Dear Dictators: you can kill all you want, just don’t bomb people and we won’t mind) it raises a fair issue for the practicality of intervention.  It is easy to bomb tanks and shoot down aircraft. It is far more challenging to stop secret policemen (and indeed, normal ones) from shooting at protesters. It is also far unwise to interfere unless entirely necessary. NATO halted the Libyan army at the gates of Benghazi. It could be argued that any sooner would have been simply to jump the gun, and hijack the popular uprising in an unforgiveable way. Giving leaders the rope to hang themselves is a way of allowing events to play out naturally in the West’s favour.  It also allows the people to form the government they want and, crucially, leaves the revolution in the hands of those who are at it’s centre, rather than artificially imposing a compromise favourable to those foreign powers who don’t have to live under it every day.

Ultimately, clear debate means viewing international relations the way they really are, not the way we’d like them to be. Syria has an unpleasant ruling elite, yet taking forceful responsibility for the transition of power in Syria would be an onerous and difficult task. Whilst we shouldn’t be ruled by fear, neither should we be buoyed by quixotic overconfidence. The Arab world has suffered enough at the hands of both attitudes from the West in recent history. If Syrians manage to topple their own government then it will be a complicated time for the country’s immediate neighbours, but a fascinating one filled with possibilities too, and the West should offer support to any incoming government. We must veer away from the ‘better the devil you know attitude’ pervading discussion at the moment. It is not an attitude that has served us, or the local population, well in this part of the world.  We shouldn’t fear uncertainty, it is after all the price of change. Cautiously accepting the current ugly authoritarian regime is a policy that has partly caused the loss of Western moral authority in the region in the first place.

Somewhere there must be a line as to how far we are willing to see another government go before we stop them forcefully. The realities of international relations are, however, that each case is distinct, unique, and complex, and that our resources simply aren’t always equal to ensuring a stable outcome should we interfere. Western leaders, editorials and commentators, need to talk about Syria and other states clearly, with reasoned debate about our ability to intervene, or the future assistance we might be able to give if the regime were to collapse by itself, not using hysterical fear mongering worst-case scenarios of a dark future if it were all to go wrong to justify inaction.

We must also remember and admit that NATO’s response is selective, it always will be. Practically, it must be. We can’t simply fly in, guns blazing and hoping for the best in Syria. We can however, make reasoned arguments for and against a forceful response and plans for either eventuality. This is what we should be doing, and our language should be clear and concise on the issue. It is important to remember though, that not all situations are equal, and the fact that we can’t catch all bank robbers, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prosecute the ones we can. Pragmatism must prevail if we hope to see the most positive outcome from the Arab spring.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, International Affairs, Middle East

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