The Article: The Absence Of Humility In Our Thoughts On Syria by Adam Gallagher in The Speckled Axe.
The Text: For over a year, the people of Syria have called for the downfall of the Assad regime. The United Nations estimates that nearly 10,000 Syrians have been killed, with thousands more injured or detained. With this brutality in mind, calls for “humanitarian intervention” in Syria have become increasingly vociferous. Proponents of such an intervention frequently point to the long-term benefits of ousting the Assad regime along with the egregious human violations taking place.
The purported hope is that the fall of the regime will manifest a new democratic reality in Syria and remove a key regional ally to Iran. Many details of such an intervention remain, as usual, disturbingly opaque, as do the potential consequences – beyond the assumed humanitarian and geopolitical triumphs. This deserves closer attention. In addition, the Syria case provides an opportunity to probe the concepts that often underlay arguments for this type of military action.
I would posit that, as human beings, one general point of agreement (that still somehow all too frequently seems to get lost) is that we should not revoke another human beings’ right to life. Philosophers have long argued about what exceptions may be applied to this, and the concept of self-defense is usually granted one. What naturally follows from this is whether humans have the right to kill someone who is threatening the life of another? Arguments usually suggest that person A should try to prevent person B from killing person C, but should first and foremost try to incapacitate B and only kill B as a last resort. If B must be killed to save the life of C or the lives of many people, then the loss of B’s life can be justified.
But the glaring question, especially when it comes to societal-scale confrontations between A, B and C, is what happens when several (thousand) other people die along the way? Our recent history in acts of hubris in Iraq and Afghanistan tells us this question is often ignored, with important consequences that remain difficult to fully comprehend and that make the question of what exactly a ‘just war’ looks like harder to answer than ever.
The initial putative success in Libya offers the proponents of humanitarian intervention a break from the Bosnia/Iraq/Afghanistan lineage and provides new strategic fodder for the concept of humanitarian intervention itself. Those who tout the Libya case are of course ignoring the anarchy, factionalism, violence and fragmentation that are a pervasive feature of the post-Qadaffi Libya. But the relative ease of the bombing campaign in Libya would not be replicated in the Syrian case. Syria’s military capabilities vastly outstrip those of Libya and its air defense system is relatively strong. Most importantly, air strikes on military installations would undoubtedly cause civilian deaths as many of the Syrian military bases are in close propinquity to population centers.
While direct military action by NATO, the Arab League or any other coalition of forces would certainly result in an inestimable number of civilian deaths, the aftermath of the toppling of the Assad regime may prove to be even more deleterious for Syrians. Recent examples of post-intervention chaos in Iraq and Libya demonstrate the baleful ramifications of power vacuums in societies with historical ethno-sectarian divisions, and Syria contains a host of such enmities – many of which have been purposely exacerbated by forty years of Assad family rule. Syrian expert Bassam Haddad has noted that humanitarian intervention “will exponentially increase the death toll of Syrians in absolute and relative terms without achieving any discernible conclusive outcome.”
Ultimately, the power vacuum after Assad could result in thousands of more civilian deaths. As we approach the ten year anniversary of our latest adventure in the Fertile Crescent, it seems grotesque that the bloodshed and turmoil in Iraq have not galvanized a more public sense of modesty in our discussion of intervention in Syria. Even in Libya, the post-Qaddafi era has remained fraught with violence. Syria is a country rife with historical enmities, and if Assad were toppled by an outside force the resultant power grab could be as bloody as Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters. Yet an honest assertion of these facts is rendered impossible by the domestic political posturing that shapes American discourse on a decision that could, potentially, mean several thousands of people alive today will no longer be in the near future.
Any framework for humanitarian intervention must introduce a healthy dose of modesty. The argument that certain noncombatant casualties are an unfortunate consequence of any conflict is no longer acceptable, yet in some ways it has never been more absent. Because leaders cannot ultimately know what the outcome or aftermath of the intervention may be, they should first and foremost work to limit causalities at all costs.
In the case of Syria, many have asked what alternatives there are to humanitarian intervention? Their unpopular yet morally upright argument is that the international community should continue to provide succor to Syrians through humanitarian support, promote awareness of the situation, pressure the Assad regime through diplomacy and sanctions, encourage high level regime defections and implement arms embargoes. The Reagan administration’s decision to arm the mujahedeen in Afghanistan provides a useful counterpoint to those who argue that providing military support for the rebels is a win-win.
The recent uprisings in the Arab world that are currently on the most positive trajectory, those in Tunisia and Egypt, are those where leaders were toppled because of organic, largely nonviolent campaigns. While these countries struggle through the early days of imperfect democracy, their example should demonstrate how a transition of power in Syria forced by the Syrian people, not a coalition of international forces with ulterior motives, can ultimately produce the most salutary outcome. More deaths than those caused by the blood thirsty Assad regime could result and, as such, it is the international community’s duty to promote peace without adding to the already horrific casualty counts of this conflict.