Syria is perhaps the best, and most worrying example, of hard-nosed realism cloaked in the rhetoric of human rights. Western powers, the UN, the Arab League, and Turkey have all condemned the Assad regime’s violent suppression of civilian protests.
Only the Russians have withheld criticism arguing that measures taken by the international community could de-stabilize the region. As a result, Russia has been charged with privileging stability and the status-quo over the welfare of the Syrian people.
Western nor regional interests in Syria have anything to do with the Syrian people and their rights; in fact, Syria is where the liberal threads of the Arab spring begin to unravel.
Assad belongs to a minority Alawite sect, which has dominated the Syrian government since 1970. Alawites are a sect related to Shia Muslims, and make up about 7 percent of the country’s population. The Alawite government has traditionally been a secular, socialist government,built around the military.
The US, and the regional Middle-Eastern governments have a vested interest in the future of the Assad regime. Syria has been a strong ally of Iran. The US would like to see the Assad regime overthrown in the hope that it will cause a tear in the Iranian sphere of influence. Moreover, since efforts to reign in Iran’s nuclear, and other, ambitions have been mostly consistently ineffective, Syria provides an alternative avenue to hit the Iranian regime. The special friendship between Iran an Syria is especially significant in light of expected US withdrawal from Iraq next year. As US forces withdraw, Iranian influence is expected to grow and combined with Iran’s stronghold in Syria, the Iranian sphere of influence could now extend all the way from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. If Assad survives, Iran will thus be the big winer. Aside from help check US power in the region, increased Iranian influence in Syria would also serve a reminder to the Saudi’s that accommodating Iran is much more beneficial than resisting or opposing Iranian power. The threat of a wider Iranian sphere of influence has not been lost on Saudi Arabia or the Arab league more generally, who have calculated that Syria is the critical battlefield on which Iranian power can be checked. Turkey, not to be left out, has also shifted from being a Syrian ally to calling upon strong measures against the Assad regime, motivated chiefly by the desire to curb Iranian influence in the region. Israel has found itself in bit of a pickle, as while it would like to curb Iranian influence in Middle East, Assad is the ‘devil we know’ and fear Islamists assuming power in Iran.
So, what we see in Syria has little to do with the grievances of the Syrian people, but the strategic interests of the regional powers, plus the United States. And yet, it continues to be publicly justified in terms of the rights and grievances of the Syrian people, and the responsibility of the international community to protect civilians, to save strangers. This rhetoric has once again prevented us from asking the critical questions about the current situations, questions and points that must be noted if there is to be an informed and nuanced international response that is is the best interests of the Syrian people.
First, comparisons with Libya are not informative. Power in Syria is much more opaque than in Libya and Assad’s stepping down may not result in the end of Assadism. Moreover, it is unclear the extent to which the rejection of the Assad regime is spread across the wider public, with some sources noting that large parts of Syria are calm and people seek a return to business as usual under Assad. Despite the nature of the Assad regime, it is secular and many fear that the Islamists will seize power after the fall of Assad. It is also not completely beyond the realm of imagination that at least some of the protests and violence in Syria is provoked or funded by external actors; the interlocking web of regional interest discussed above provide enough motive. And finally, even if we are to compare with Libya, the jury is still out on the success of the intervention. True, Gaddafi is dead,but reports note that more civilians died after, or even as a result of, NATO’s intervention than under Gaddafi; more over, western nations were quick to support the rebel leaders with little to no – knowledge of who these rebels were, their future intentions for Libya, and consequences of which we are seeing today as the future of Libya hands in disarray.
Second, the success and credibility of any intervention can not be judged by good intention alone – and I hope I have de-bunked the notion of the game in Syria being motivated by good intentions – but also the likelihood of success and the possible consequences along the route to success. First, the possibility of a successful military intervention is almost definitely zero. Russia more than likely to veto and NATO is unlikely to be prepared. More critically, Iran is unlikely to take intervention in Syria lying down and Iranian response to any military intervention will most certainly have catastrophic de-stabilizing effects for the region. Sanctions have a strong track record of failure, be it in Iran or Saddam’s Iraq; moreover, as sanctions normally punish the common man rather than the regime, they have the paradoxical effect of strengthening the regime’s domestic base in opposition to foreign meddlers. Finally, the problem with such measures is that the more pressure that is placed on the regime, the more quickly the regime’s exit option disappear. As a recent editorial notes, ‘Assad’s problem now is that he’s lost any chance of genuine compromise and must therefore fight on in the hope that he can cow the opposition and restore order. Once an authoritarian ruler rejects compromise and liberalization and launches a bloody crackdown instead, they have to do whatever it takes to win.’
The situation then leaves with us with a possibly peculiar paradox. On the one hand, the moral rhetoric accompanying international and regional condemnation of the Assad regime compels western powers and the Arab League to keep the pressure on Assad and make a string of (empty?) threats. Yet, given the complex web of interests in the regime, any genuine action is likely to result in de-stabilizing the region with consequences too worrying to imagine. An Iranian backlash is something one hopes that none of the regional powers are willing to risk. And yet, the continued pressure on the regime exaggerates and sharpens the dividing line between the various camps, accelerating and accentuating the security dilemma and a hostile Middle Eastern system.
Some times good intentions, are not good enough. And in the Syrian case, the pretense of good intentions has hopefully been revealed. The itch to act does not itself provide a justification to act. Especially, without a consideration of the broader and more longer-term consequences.
The Russians have been criticized by government and commentators alike for their objection to sanctions and intervention in Syria. But, the Russian position is worth re-considering in light of the above discussion. First, they are correct to note that the toppling of the Assad could de-stabilize the region, a concern that should not be quickly forgotten in the name of human rights. Second, the Russian concern is in fact not so far off from that of the US or the Arab League – it is concerned with securing its strategic interests in the Middle East; the difference however is that it does not need to cloak these interests in terms of human rights and instead is transparent of its preference over a stable status-quo that preserves the order of states rather than the security of people.
Finally, it is worth noting that arguments by western governments, against the Assad regime and critical of the Russian veto, often refer to the measures taken by the Arab League as legitimating the western criticism of the west. The Arab League’s emphasis on human rights and democracy, its suspension of Syria from the Arab League and the the imposition of sanctions, are indeed critical points in the history of the Arab League. Some would thus argue that the Arab League is now being socialized into liberal norms, and gradually abiding by the international rules of the game. It is worth asking however, whether the Arab League has in fact been socialized – or learnt the rules of the game – into using liberal norms based on the security of people as a justification for pursuing hard-nosed realist state interests?