As the Arab Spring rambles onward into its second year, Syria has moved to the forefront of international attention. The al-Assad regime is apparently unfazed by the revolutions roiling around it, and clings to power with a merciless grip. As the debate over the role of The West in loosening that grip intensifies, perhaps it is wise to evaluate events past and present before we--as citizens of powerful western democracies--decide what role we want our governments to play.
If you are new to this forum, I encourage you read a few pages of another thread entitled "Libya: Another American Foreign Policy Mistake". In that thread you will find many of the knee jerk reactions of Western Liberal Democrats against the specter of a government repressing its citizens with artillery, tempered by a constant warning to proceed with caution. This thread is intended to take a step beyond such rudimentary reflexes, and look deeper into the efficacy of a moral impulse embodied by the United Nations concept of The Responsibility To Protect.
I would like to begin by posing a controversial question: If Assad eventually succeeds in crushing the uprising by flattening the city of Homs and other centers of unrest, with perhaps 30,000 civilian casualities, is this the best result that the people of Syria could hope for? It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the fall of the Assad regime could lead to a human disaster on a scale that we are simply unable to imagine.
To put this question into perspective, it might be helpful to consider a contemporary example: Libya. By the time that the United Nations intervened in Libya under the aegis of "The Responsibility to Protect", the Libyan Revolution was responsible for a relatively low number of casualties, perhaps merely one or two thousand. As the responsiblity to protect eventually evolved into regime change--or, to be more precise, regime destruction--we are now faced with anarchy in Libya, and a body count that is now estimated at 20 times that original number continues to grow by the day and accelerates as tribal rivalry and warfare intensifies in the power vaccuum of a leaderless Libya. Gadaffi warned the world that he was the only obstacle to abject chaos, and he may yet prove to have been being sincere. As the casualties will undoubtedly continue to mount into the unforseeable future, how can the West claim that it acted morally when it aided in the overthrow of the Libyan government, and then abandoned the country to sort through the ensuing tumult?
The ultimate moral efficacy of the intervention in Libya can not be judged at this stage, but some have long suspicioned that it would eventually unfold into an enduring disaster. This conclusion should not be surprising when we consider the requisite components of a stable democracy, and where Libya stands in terms of that transition.
First and foremost, a country needs the stability and security generally provided by police and military. It is only in a stable environment that civil society can flourish, where a transitioning country can then evolve its economic development, independent judiciary, Parliament, and a robust private sector. These are all fundamental aspects of liberty, justice, prosperity, and the rule of law that traquil, democratic societies buttressed by a strong middle class require. In the absence of stability, the Libyan experiment with democracy may not have the necessary time to bear fruit before the society veers towards more radical or even reactionary options.
We can apply the same paradigm to Syria, as there is presently no alternative to the Baathist regime which currently reigns. The police and military are dominated by the Alawite sect of al-Assad, and are firmly entrenched with the regime. If the regime falls and a power vaccuum erupts, it could dwarf the instability of Libya by collapsing the entire Levant into civil war.
Since the capture of Gadaffi, developments in Libya have lost their dramatic appeal, and the world has refocused its attentions elsewhere. A regional war in The Levant however, will not allow you to ignore it.
It is a rare day that I would encourage you to listen to the words of Vladimir Putin uncynically, but these are extraordinary times:
A year ago the world witnessed a new phenomenon - nearly simultaneous demonstrations against authoritarian regimes in many Arab countries... People in Russia sympathized with those who were seeking democratic reform.
However, it soon became clear that events in many countries were not following a civilized scenario. Instead of asserting democracy and protecting the rights of the minority, attempts were being made to depose an enemy and to stage a coup, which only resulted in the replacement of one dominant force with another even more aggressive dominant force...
No one should be allowed to employ the Libyan scenario in Syria. The international community must work to achieve an internal Syrian reconciliation. It is important to achieve an early end to the violence no matter what the source, and to initiate a national dialogue - without preconditions or foreign interference and with due respect for the country's sovereignty. This would create the conditions necessary to introduce the measures for democratization announced by the Syrian leadership. The key objective is to prevent an all-out civil war. Russian diplomacy has worked and will continue to work toward this end.
Sadder but wiser, we oppose the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions that may be interpreted as a signal to armed interference in Syria's domestic development. Guided by this consistent approach in early February, Russia and China prevented the adoption of an ambiguous resolution that would have encouraged one side of this domestic conflict to resort to violence.
In this context and considering the extremely negative, almost hysterical reaction to the Russian-Chinese veto, I would like to warn our Western colleagues against the temptation to resort to this simple, previously used tactic: if the UN Security Council approves of a given action, fine; if not, we will establish a coalition of the states concerned and strike anyway.
The logic of such conduct is counterproductive and very dangerous. No good can come of it. In any case, it will not help reach a settlement in a country that is going through a domestic conflict...
I hope very much that the United States and other countries will consider this sad experience and will not pursue the use of power in Syria without UN Security Council sanctions. In general, I cannot understand what causes this itch for military intervention. Why isn't there the patience to develop a well-considered, balanced and cooperative approach, all the more so since this approach was already taking shape in the form of the aforementioned Syrian resolution? It only lacked the demand that the armed opposition do the same as the government; in particular, withdraw military units and detachments from cities. The refusal to do so is cynical. If we want to protect civilians - and this is the main goal for Russia - we must make all the participants in the armed confrontation see reason.
This might be the time to listen to Putin, and be highly suspicious of complicated schemes to "stop the killing". Perhaps the most moral course of action is the one most counter-intuitive: Turn your back on the Syrian people. Abandon all expectations of an intervention, and do not give the Syrians any false hopes that NATO will arrive in gleaming armor to help them topple the regime. Let the Syrians fight for reform, but do not assist them in unleashing a regional war that will involve every nation from Israel to Iran, and every ethnic faction in The Levant.