Syria: Whose voice shouts loudest?

As debate rages over ‘intervention’, the Syrian people are the victims of a legacy of colonialism.

The British parliament narrowly voted against military intervention on August 29 [AFP]
The British parliament narrowly voted against military intervention on August 29 [AFP]

As the war machine of the West seems poised to attack yet another country in the Middle East, there are many conflicting viewpoints that fervently seek agreement with their advocacy pro or contra launching a new version of “shock and awe”. At the same time, there is an appalling disregard of the Syrian people, whether there is a consensus on what they wish from outsiders, or just a split along the lines of the ongoing civil war.

Most pundits in the West seem to forget that whatever colour lines are used to draw national boundaries, that we are trapped for better or worse in a state-centric world that is living through geopolitical traumas of the post-colonial phase of global history.

Why is this relevant? For two fundamental reasons:

First, the ethos of self-determination, which empowered the anti-colonial movements in the period after World War II, also gave national resistance movements the will, confidence, and stamina to endure, and eventually prevail over foreign intervention. To depart from the respect of self-determination, no matter how distasteful its expression may be, is almost always preferable to unleashing the dogs of war. 

This is not a counsel of absolute adherence to the norm of non-intervention, reproduced in the UN Charter in Article 2(7) – which calls upon states, and the UN itself, to refrain unconditionally from intervening “in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states”. That is, the social contract between the UN and sovereign states incorporates the norms of self-determination and its complement, non-intervention.

Exceptions should be based on three conditions:

  • A substantial spillover beyond sovereign boundaries;
  • A clearly delimited authorisation by the UN Security Council, including an assumption of responsibility for operational oversight (not exercised in either the Gulf War of 1991 or Libya 2012);
  • Situations where only intervention can prevent or contain a major humanitarian catastrophe, and a Security Council mandate cannot be obtained due to political opposition, where the intervention is “legitimate, although unlawful” as in Kosovo 1999: legitimate because intervention may be feasible at acceptable costs and morally compelling in order to prevent crimes against humanity, genocide or famine.

The second point of relevance to post-colonial trauma is that the capabilities of a country targeted for intervention to nullify the goals of the intervener underscore the imprudence of undertaking a military approach to conflict resolution.

In country after country, the military dominance of the intervening side has been unable to control the political outcome of the conflict.

This should have been a lesson of the great anti-colonial liberation wars, but also the real significance of the Vietnam War, as reinforced by more recent results in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even with US military dominance, something beyond superiority – the resistance of nationalist forces, relying on persistence, knowledge of the country and its culture, use of soft power modes of resistance, and selective, symbolic recourse to violence – has in due course led the intervening side to abandon its project, leaving the country to work out its own future, either by the political takeover of the country by “the enemy” (as in Vietnam) or to leave its future bedevilled by chaos and anarchic violence (as in Iraq and Libya).

Is there ever a time to intervene?

Not all interventions fail: arguably the NATO bombardment of Serbian forces in Bosnia ended the bloodshed and produced the diplomatic solution in the form of the Dayton Accords. The Kosovo intervention seems to have averted a repeat of the Srebrenica massacre.

From these perspectives, the case against an armed attack in Syria seems overwhelming, even should it be established that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in a manner that without doubt constitutes a massive crime against humanity. Why? The conditions do not exist in Syria that might justify the claim that this is one of those exceptional cases where intervention although illegal is nevertheless legitimate.

It is true that the conflict has spillover effects of a serious character for Lebanon and Turkey, and that for this reason constitutional restrictions on UN authorisation may be put to one side. Nevertheless, the political opposition by Russia, and maybe others, makes it impossible to obtain Security Council authorisation for a military attack. Beyond these considerations, there is no likelihood that the contemplated military attack will do more than prolong the civil war in Syria or avert a humanitarian catastrophe. There exists neither the political will nor the tactical capabilities to produce “a just peace” in Syria.

Examining the pro-war momentum more closely strengthens further the argument against launching a military attack against Syria. Some allege that the real pressures for intervention derive from rogue sources in the West: making credible the “red lines” drawn by an American president in his role as global proconsul; enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention – although the widely ratified treaty contains no provision calling for enforcement; or the related argument that a decisive military response will deter future use of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. 

These arguments, at best, relate to world order, not to Syrian sovereign rights, the ethos of self-determination, or even bringing the war to an end. After all they have endured, such reasoning although piously propounded, is indifferent to the likely impacts upon the Syrian people or the region.

Recall that in the Kosovo intervention there seemed to by stronger grounds for thinking that an intervention would be effective and worthwhile: Serbia was occupying Kosovo against the united opposition of 90 percent of the Kosovar population; there was no sustained, ongoing civil war; the European neighbours, with the exception of Greece, supported military action by NATO; and the timing was consistent with avoiding an imminent repetition of the Srebrenica experience.

Keeping the war going

The more cynical interpretations are usually not featured in the mainstream, but occasionally are acknowledged, as in the publication of Edward Luttwak’s outrageous prescriptions for keeping the war going as long as possible – because victory for either side would be bad for Washington’s interests, and those of Israel.

What Luttwak, a longtime hard power think tank strategist, brazenly urges is a totally immoral policy of helping the rebels as long as they are losing, but if they start winning then to stop the assistance until the regime again gets the upper hand.

With such reasoning an attack now would be sensible, as recent battlefield assessments suggested that the balance was swinging in Assad’s favour. Such an orientation is pleasing both for arms dealers and those grand strategists who believe that Western interests are best served by ensuring that the main countries in the Middle East become preoccupied and debilitated by the entropic effects of endless civil strife – a policy that might be associated with “the revenge of defeated imperialists”. The European colonial control system have have collapsed, but its bloody sequel would make political independence a worse ordeal than colonial subjugation. Since the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt, I have heard frequent reference to the Arab proverb: “Better a thousand years of tyranny than a single day of chaos.”

What is particularly disturbing in the framing of the Syrian debate after the chemical attack of August 21 is the failure to explore diplomatic alternatives in a manner that could produce an end to the war.

The obvious way to do this would be to involve Iran and Russia in the process, possibly widening the scope of a diplomatic process to include the establishment of regional peace in the Middle East. To undertake such an approach with any reasonable prospect of a breakthrough would require an unthinkable posture of strategic detachment, putting on the negotiating table a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Because such an orientation accords with decency, justice, and peaceful relations for the region, it is utopian to even mention, and so the taboos on rational discourse blinker debate in such a way as to make the war option seem the only alternative to passive navel-gazing. Would this diplomatic approach succeed? Who knows, but that it is worth trying as opposed to sliding towards widening the Syrian conflict should be obvious to all – except those who refuse the counsel of common sense, that is, the political leaders who preside in Washington, London, and Paris.

The ordeal of the Syrian people since early 2011 should be in the foreground of the current debate, but instead it is pushed to the shadowy background. Diplomacy is the most responsible way to respond to this ordeal, but undertaken in such a way as to demonstrate the real commitment of outsiders to the realistic parameters of compromise and accommodation, especially on the part of those responsible for so cruelly colonising and exploiting the region in the past.

At the moment it is precisely certain leaders in Britain and France – which together carved up the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, including Syria, in the infamous secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – that are now most loudly beating the drums of war, with the unforgiveable complicity of the hegemonic regional successor operating out of Washington, DC.

The language of Sykes-Picot should not be forgotten in this period when the colonialists are taking their long-sought revenge for being humbled since at least the aftermath of the Suez War of 1956. After proclaiming their willingness to support the emergence of Arab countries, the text turns to discussing the coloured map of the region in which it was agreed “…that in the blue area France, and in the red area Great Britain, shall be allowed to such direct and indirect administrative control as they desire”.

What we are witnessing in this latest phase of this horrific Syrian struggle are the cyclical tensions between a Western militarism of decay and the abortive legacy of empire that leaves societies torn asunder.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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