Archive for the ‘Humanitarian Interventionism’ Category

Intervention: A Path to Syrian Democracy?

It’s not hard to find the case for military intervention in Syria compelling. In the Youtube age, tyrants can’t easily suppress the evidence of their crimes, and there’s something very powerful about the visual realm for us humans. If the images burned into the public consciousness by the photojournalism of the Vietnam war can be credited with fuelling American domestic opposition to that war, then visual evidence can play just as potent a role in making the case for war.

Such scenes of human tragedy appeal to human compassion and rightly overpower the weak verbal arguments customarily offered against intervention: we shouldn’t meddle in other people’s affairs, it’s not our problem, it would cost too much money in a time of domestic austerity, etc. But having demonstrated the most sincere moral fortitude in resolving that “something needs to be done” our comrades proceed with understandable haste, but also unfortunate carelessness, to conclude of military intervention that “this is something, let’s do it!”

With the best of intentions it is argued that the condition of the Syrian people will be improved by military intervention, unfortunately a substantive democracy doesn’t necessarily follow from the removal of a dictator. Neither is it clear that the removal of Assad would bring an end to the humanitarian crisis rather than simply reverse victim and culprit.

As much as I wish the civil war were a simple case of ‘the people’ versus ‘the dictator,’ the reality is that the Syrian rebels represent just one side of a sectarian schism. One of the few commonalities between the otherwise diverse array of factions that constitute the rebellion is that their fighters are almost exclusively Sunni Arabs. Sympathies for conservative Islamic politics is widespread among the militias, although not universal. Salafist militias, from those sympathetic to the House of Saud to those aligned with Al-Qaeda, have found a home within the wide tent of the Free Syrian Army.

It’s not just despots in Damascus who fear the arrival of the rebels, Alawites face reprisals for perceived complicity in the Ba’athist regime while Christians and Kurds have also been the victims of sectarian attacks. A tyranny of the majority is no less a tyranny for those who are its victims – it offers to cast aside one injustice only to replace it with another.

Even if we give the rebels the benefit of the doubt and close our eyes to any sectarian disaster that may be unleashed by their victory, freedom for the Syrian people is not a cause which can be advanced by subjugating their fate to the interests of external powers.

Each of the region’s powers is playing its own game. To the House of Saud and their allies, there is no greater evil than democracy, which is why they proceeded to swiftly exorcise it, using fire-power supplied with the blessing of the British government, when protests hit the streets of Bahrain in 2011. This was not the first time the UK supported the suppression of democratic opposition in the Arab world and nor was it the last: British arms continue to be sold to both the Saudi dictators and their minions in Bahrain. It’s clear that for our selectively outraged rulers, it’s not a matter of democracy versus dictatorship but a game of our dictators and theirs.

Dangerous chancers among the interventionists argue that the cynical interests of Britain’s ruling class can be exploited, that despite the hypocrisy of Britain backing Bahrain’s dictator even more shamelessly than Russia backs Assad, our Government’s impure motives can be harnessed to bring freedom to Syria. They may not be so eager to play with fire if they were the ones at risk of being burned.

The Assad regime play the same role to the Iranian mullahs and Russian arms dealers that the rebels do to Saudi sheikhs and British arms dealers. Turkey’s soft-Islamist government, meanwhile, hasn’t missed its opportunity to pursue its own regional interests. They know that the crutch which supports the rebels in their time of need will become the shackle that binds them in power, in this sense it is not so much that the Turkish ministers are playing the role of hawks but that of vultures.

Whichever power wins out, the Syrian people will lose; the resulting government, whether superficially democratic in form or not, will be the instrument of forces beyond their control. There is no path to democracy in transforming freedom fighters, whether genuine or merely soi-disant, into pawns of sheikhs, mullahs or European powers. One day the Syrian people will assert their will and take control of their own lives but, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, there are no shortcuts to democracy.