Humanitarian Intervention: Failed Expectations

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A Syrian refugee child sits at an abandoned school in the Wady Khaled area, northern Lebanon 12 November 2011. The word on his forehead reads, "Go" in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Photo REUTERS - Omar Ibrahim)

By: Serene Assir

Published Friday, November 18, 2011

As the uprising and bloodshed continue, Syrians find themselves caught with threats of military intervention and civil war both looming over their nation.

History shows that neither dictatorial regimes nor wars fought in the name of humanitarianism have done anything to bring peace or human rights to a people. But this is the harsh dilemma Syrians who oppose President Bashar Assad’s regime appear to be faced with today, with the added threat of the outbreak of civil war on the horizon.

While NATO has explicitly stated that it will not wage a similar campaign to its Libya intervention earlier this year, the heat on Syria is rising fast. On the global scale, the leaderships of the US, Germany, Britain, France and Turkey have each made statements that reflect the tension of the times, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urging the world Thursday to “hear the screams from Syria...I want to stress that those killed in Syria are just as human as those killed in Libya.”

From within the Syrian opposition too, calls for intervention are emerging. Al-Jazeera and other television stations have broadcast images over recent weeks showing demonstrators carrying posters that make direct calls for military intervention to stop the Assad regime in its tracks.

A small number of opposition groups have made calls for intervention, some more nuanced than others. For one, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Riad Shakfa told reporters that “the Syrian people would accept intervention coming from Turkey, rather than from the West, if its goal was to protect the people.”

Other Syrian opposition forces disagree. There does not appear to be a unified position on this critical issue, to the point that one wonders to what extent the questions of regime change and foreign intervention necessitate the linkage that they are being attributed so broadly.

As for the opposition’s diverging political stands on the issue, some groups from within the Syrian National Council take a more nuanced approach that focuses on ensuring that regime change happens from the inside; others are more brazen. The Muslim Brotherhood may have made a statement welcoming intervention, but “they're speaking solely on behalf of their party, not the Syrian National Council [SNC],” says Omar Edelbi, spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committee (LCC).

An additional concern is the potentially devastating effects that any military intervention could have, even if it is Turkish and not Western-led. The link between potential foreign military intervention and civil, if not regional war is being cited by more than one opposition figure, while Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s recent speech made similar allusions. Attacking Syria or Iran would be “an error,” he said on November 11, because regional war would “inevitably” follow.

Whether Nasrallah’s words constituted a veiled threat or simple analysis is yet to be seen. More broadly, in spite of the desperation of the Syrian opposition eight months into the uprising, there are those who continue to call for restraint by anti-regime activists.

“Whenever there is foreign intervention, even if it doesn’t reach the point of military intervention, the possibilities that civil war will break out multiply,” says Syrian dissident Loay Hussein, president of the Front for the Building of the State. His is among the most opposed of all the anti-regime groups to intervention. “The Syrians can continue to struggle without any kind of foreign intervention. What needs to change is not the Syrian opposition’s attitude, but rather the regime’s,” Hussein added.

Samir al-Aayta of the Syrian National Coordination Body agreed, emphasizing that it is the regime’s violence that “will be better protected if foreign powers intervene.” “If you lose your country, you lose your rights.”

In al-Aayta’s view, there are ways to keep the struggle going without resorting to foreign military intervention. “On one hand, the peaceful uprising needs to continue,” he added. “Meanwhile, the Arab League’s proposals seem to be working. Their focus on the protection of civilians is positive. I think their proposals are far better for Syria than any US or Turkish intervention.”

On this point, Assad stated Friday that he was willing, “in principle,” to accept the presence of foreign observers on Syrian soil. Though there is no clarity yet on what that qualification will mean in practice, should the Arab League’s proposal materialize, it may well be a step in the right direction for the protection of the same rights that interventionists claim to fight for.

In reality, considering the disunity of the Syrian opposition, but more importantly given the media blackout that the Syrian regime has imposed on the country since the uprising began, it is hard to gauge how far calls for intervention are really being made on the streets.

Be that as it may, history has shown that wars fought in the name of humanitarianism are wars regardless, and that “there will of course be civilian casualties. The whole idea doesn’t make any sense,” according to Jean Bricmont, author of a book titled “Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War.”

“The questions to ask are who intervenes, and why is it that those who intervene are the only ones allowed to do so,” Bricmont added. “Only strong states appear to have the right to intervene.” Strength and respect for human rights have in practice little to do with each other, as proven in this case by Turkey’s record of accusing dissenting journalists of complicity with terrorism. “Journalists who cover Kurdish issues critically continue to be accused of supporting the separatists by officials who cite the war on terror as their overriding imperative,” according to a Reporters Without Borders press release dated October 26.

As for the history of wars fought in the name of human rights, while the most recent Libyan example had United Nations backing, to observers such as Hugh Roberts, former International Crisis Group head, legality, or international consent, are not necessarily enough to justify wars.

“Presented by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and cheered on by the Western media as an integral part of the Arab Spring, and thus supposedly of a kind with the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan drama is rather an addition to the list of Western or Western-backed wars against hostile, ‘defiant’, insufficiently ‘compliant’, or ‘rogue’ regimes,” wrote Roberts in an essay on Libya published by the London Review of Books.

Part of the reason why the legitimacy of military interventions in the name of humanitarianism may simply not hold up is because “theoretically, if every state intervened in every other state’s internal affairs, we’d just have global war,” said Bricmont. “Is that the world we want to live in?”

Perhaps the most relevant question for Syrians today, with regards to how regime change should come about, should be whether they want a “puppet regime to be installed. It is simply not true that a war can be fought on the Syrians’ behalf, but that there will be no expectation of payback. From a progressive point of view, humanitarian wars just make no sense,” said Bricmont.

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