Friday, 13 September 2013

Syria is our generation's Rwanda moment

Onee of the saddest facts of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is that we all saw it coming. The West knew about (and was in some ways responsible for) the historical legacy that created the ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. We had witnessed the Rwandan Civil War and heard worrying reports about the rise of Hutu Power. The genocide was openly discussed in cabinet meetings, hate speech was printed in media and expressed on radio programs, Hutus and Tutsis were made to wear cards identifying their ethnicity and evidence was delivered by UN Lieutenant General Daillare to the international community that an ethnic cleansing was forthcoming. And while peacekeeper troops were stationed, the UN refused to ever give them the mandate to try and stop the genocide, even while it was happening in front of the eyes of the world. In fact, the amount of troops was brought down to a pitiable 512, 512 people who had to watch helplessly as around them hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in a whipped-up fit of frenzy, anger and fear.
Naturally, the UN afterwards considered its involvement in Rwanda an utter failure, developed a doctrine of "Responsibility To Protect" and international organisations, UN member states and academia developed a consensus that promoted military intervention as a just and necessary response to stop war crimes and crimes against humanity.

All those big lofty words may have helped somewhat in Libya; they may certainly have aided the inhabitants of Kosovo; they were however mostly forgotten when we had a window of opportunity in Syria, and the world now watches idly as the country marches to an everlasting civil war and the creation of a failed state.

The media consensus on intervention in Syria is clear and correct: while it would be good to try and stop the horrors in Syria, an intervention is currently fool-hardy, would only escalate the conflict, draw out regional actors, create an (further) anti-Western sentiment amongst extremist rebels and would create a power vacuum that will not be filled peacefully. The angle that the media hasn't spun is that the Syria war has not been an unavoidable path to this bleak endgame, but that in the past different actions could've led to better consequences. Alas, the West stood idly by.

The West didn't intervene during the uprisings in Egypt in 2011, as the army at the time decided on the crucial moments to join the protesters and overthrow the Mubarak regime. The West did intervene when Qaddafi decided to shoot at the protesters in Libya and create a civil war. When the Libyan government threatened to sack Benghazi the West intervened and aided the rebels in their fight to topple the regime and create a new peaceful society. Many moments that could've sparked similar actions in Syria can be pointed to: in late April 2011 Assad sent out the army to quell protesters across villages and cities. In June Rastan and Talbiseh were besieged, and later the Free Syrian Army would launch its first offensive against Assad there. On the 3rd of July tanks drove to Hama in an action mirroring the impending siege of Benghazi in Libya. Meanwhile the UN hoped for a peace plan that never seemed likely to emerge, and UN officials merely flocked to Syria's borders to give out emergency aid to the millions of international refugees and internally displaced people.

Furthermore, serious attempts at creating a cohesive resistance movement were ignored by policy hawks. The resistance movement wasn't always a mess of overlapping (religious) extremists, foreign actors such as Hezbollah and the Iranian National Guard and shell-shocked war-weary civilians-turned-soldiers. Remember that in 2011 many fractions unified in the Syrian National Council, which took care to confirm to democratic aims and represented many minority groups, including Kurds, Christians and Alawites. This council was recognized by the Arab League, and immediatedly afterwards by countries such as France, Italy and after a month even by the United States as the (sole) legitimate representative of the Syrian people. If a military intervention had taken place it can be assumed that this body would've been instrumental in ushering in a transition government and representative elections.

An intervention would have been messy, but several options have been widely discussed (and some, allegedly, tried); air support for the Syrian rebels to take out the heavy artillery and tanks used by Assad's forces; creating a safe zone in rebel stronghold such as Homs in a move mirroring the protection of Benghazi; supplying the rebels with weaponry, specifically anti-tank or anti-aircraft weaponry that can't be used effectively for in-fighting with other rebel forces. Maybe even a limited attempt at "boots on the grounds" could have been feasible, once again aiming at creating a safe zone.

The goal would have been clear: create hope and an unified front for the rebel forces to prevent the in-fighting, fractioning and radicalisation that is so understandable after months of fighting an endless war. Deter civilian deaths and limit the offensive capacities of Assad's armies. Create safe zones for civilians where attempts at governing can be formed, creating the institutional experience and capacity required for a peaceful transition government.



International responses could have been curtailed. The Obama administration could argue, rightfully, that they were protecting national security interests or had to act on a duty to protect allies such as Turkey (enshrined under the treaty establishing NATO) and Israel. Critical support could have been gained in the General Assembly of the UN if Russia and China continued blocking any Security Council resolutions; deals could have been struck with Russia so it could maintain a military base in or near Syria. Russia would not be interested in middling with the conflict itself, refusing to take sides, and therefore any sanctions against the US and its "coalition of the willing" couldn't exceed to much more than pestering policies such as the ban on international adoption, or at worse a heightening of the energy prices in Europe - and I'd be happy to pay more for my winter heating in exchange for the safety of people caught up in a civil war.

Regrettably, at no point did this seem a feasible option. Probably because we were all "tired" of fighting (how tired are the Syrians?). Understandably we were concerned about the lives of the young men who had to risk their lives in the conflict. I personally know and have the deepest respect for a number of young Dutch recruits, and can understand the agonizing worry their parents must go through when they read about conflicts in the news.

Putting it in a larger perspective, it has never been a feasible option not because it was unfeasible, but because we made it so, in retoric and practice. That is a lesson that history books have thought us very well. Samantha Power, current US Permanent Representative to the UN, wrote a damning indictment of US foreign policy during genocide called " A Problem From Hell". She shows that countries that are called upon to intervene on humanitarian grounds (not the national security interests of Iraq and Afghanistan) always are reluctant to go in. One U.S. officer informed General Romeo Dallaire (commander of UNAMIR) that it would take 85,000 Rwandan lives to justify risking that of one American soldier. In times of genocide, the foreign policy of many western countries have always been hesitant to call a spade a spade, leading to one horrifying exchange with State Department Representative Shelly who, talking about Rwanda, insisted "acts of genocide" had occurred, but no actual genocide. 

This reluctance to intervene, this continuation of realist policies by countries who employ liberal retoric on the international stage, will regrettably continue to typecast the international departments of foreign policy and defence departments worldwide. The consequence is forseeable: no critical public mass is build up for an intervention and democratically-elected leaders deciding in self-interest that this would hurt (re-)election chances won't be willing to test the waters. Responses to conflicts therefore remain "too little, too later"  or even no response at all. A hastily scribbled memo citing "complications" in whether an intervention is allowed or would work are enough to dissuade even the hardiest of hawks.

Frankly, in the best case scenario an intervention in Syria would have been testy. But we owe it to the people in Syria, who risk their lives fighting an unjust war, to have seriously considered the possibility at an appropriate time.
As it happened we have done no better than when dealing with ethnic cleansings or State collapses in the 20th century. A century of hard-learned lessons have gone down the drain.


In a few years time, when Syria has become the Somalia of the Middle Eastern region (if we're that lucky), this may be a narrative that finally hits the media and popular academic thought. We will have looked at how telling the signs were that the shooting of peaceful protesters would lead to a civil war. And we can only conclude that the international community has failed again to put the interest of innocents at heart. We can only call this our generation's Rwanda moment.