Syria, morality and geopolitics

An accurate reading of the Syrian crisis must take into account the political interests and motives of leading regional actors, says Rein Müllerson.

People are being killed in Syria. The repressive government in Damascus is using force - sometimes targeted, often indiscriminate - against its own people. That much is clear and very few apart from the regime led by Bashar al-Assad would deny it. For months, media outlets have concentrated their (and therefore our) attention on its atrocities; which also means that almost every consumer of news feels that "something must be done" to put an end to them.

This moral outrage channelled by the media is doubtless justified. But it also blinds, in two ways. First, along the way it loses important details. Second, and even more importantly, it may help fuel the conflict rather than bringing closer an end to the humanitarian catastrophe.

There is no doubt that the revolt against the Assad regime - like its equivalents in other Arab countries - is a response to brutal authoritarian rule. However, it is not only that; for (in the spirit of Leo Tolstoy's remark about families) every country is unhappy in its own way. The devil is in the context as well as the details. In this light, an analysis of the complex entanglements of the Syrian situation may be a better route to finding solutions to the crisis than the expression of outrage.

Syria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with a Sunni Muslim majority, where political power is held by members of the Alawi Shi'a minority and where there are several other miorities of significant size (among them Kurds, Circassians and Armenians). The ruling elite in Syria is also a close ally of the theocratic Shi'a state in Iran. In the context of the region's geopolitical rivalries, and from the point of view of conservative (and Sunni) Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, a toppling of Syria's government would be the next best thing to a humbling of Iran. Such ambitions indicate that in the Syrian context the "Arab awakening" has been hijacked by geopolitical games.

The role of such state interests casts another light on the moral outrage (again, justified) at events in Syria. The Gulf autocracies Saudi Arabia and Qatar are vocal critics of the Assad regime, a stance echoed by their strong ally the United States (whose fifth fleet is based in Bahrain). Yet the Saudis treat harshly their own Shi'a population, and in February 2011 strongly helped Sunni-ruled Bahrain to suppress a popular revolt centred on the Shi'a there. The concern to subdue the Shi'a at home, and to challenge regimes governed by Shi'a (Syria and Iran) in the neighbourhood, all too evidently underpins these Gulf states new-found concern with Syrians' human rights.

The lesson of history

It seems, then, that several regional players easy talk about human-rights violations in Syria is a camouflage for Sunni-Shi'a (or Arab-Iranian) rivalry. But this geopolitical aspect of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria is paralleled by a military-legal one.

The Syrian army is using heavy weaponry to directly target civilians and their property in "rebellious" and to attack opponents (both armed and unarmed) with indiscriminate force. In legal terms such acts, whatever the intent and depending on the context, are either war crimes or crimes against humanity. The precise qualification depends on a legal judgment as to whether there is an internal armed conflict (civil war) or "simply" a situation of internal disturbances, riots or rebellion.

The Syrian army can act in this way (instead of, for example, just marching into these rebellious areas to suppress the peaceful resistance to the regime) in part because there is an armed force - the so-called Free Syrian Army - which is operating amongst the civilians in the cities under attack; in effect, makes them a human shield. This is not the first time that a weaker opponent uses a foreseeable bloody action by a ruthless regime to generate sympathy for its cause and to try to bring about external intervention on its behalf.

Those who care more about innocent lives than geopolitical games and regime-change might at this point feel the need to call on all armed groups to cease using force. In current conditions, to condemn only Syria's government while calling for a regime-change would give false hope to the opposition and make it more intransigent. To go further and act on its hope would in turn ensure more civilian casualties and an escalation in the spiral of violence. The precedent of Afghanistan in the 1980s (when Saudi Arabia armed the mujahideen against the Soviets) shows that such action is counterproductive and compounds violation of international law regarding state sovereignty.

It is true that in some situations, for example Rwanda in 1994, humanitarian concerns would surely outweigh imperatives of state sovereignty and non-interference. And that other actors at present, such as Russia with its continuing supply of arms to the government, are also behaving unlawfully. But in these cases too, there is a danger that moral outrage blinds the vision.

Those who fight bad guys are not necessarily good guys. Without such simplifications, the mobilising effect that both sides in a conflict need would be much weakened. Yet when they are applied, and whenever intensive and sustained media attention on a conflict focuses on crimes committed by one side, this tends to become a prelude to and preparation for an all-out attempt at regime-change. Moreover, a consistent lesson of history is that such acting upon black-and-white visions has a boomerang effect.

If this all sounds too cynical it must be recalled that hypocrisy is all-pervasive among the major players in regional and global power-politics. It is always safe to double-check whether, behind moral indignation, lofty words and calls for action, other interests and motives are involved. In the context of Syria, the interests and motives of the leading actors - the Syrian regime, the Saudi monarchy and its allies, other engaged states, as well as the various Syrian factions - need to be examined as part of an effort to complete the most urgent tasks: putting an end to the bloodshed, securing access to humanitarian assistance for those in need, and starting a political process where all sides should be ready for compromises.

About the author

Rein Müllerson is the president of the Academy of Law of Tallinn University, Estonia. He was professor and chair of international law at King's College, London (1994-2009). He has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (1988-92), visiting centennial professor of the London School of Economics and Political Science (1992-94), and first deputy foreign minister of Estonia (1991-92).

Rein Müllerson is the author of eleven books on international law and politics and more than 200 articles and reviews. His books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996) and Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007). His latest book is Democracy – A Destiny of Humankind? A Qualified, Contingent and Contextual Case for Democracy Promotion (Nova, 2009)             

More On

Rein Müllerson is the president of the Academy of Law of Tallinn University, Estonia. He was professor and chair of international law at King's College, London (1994-2009). He has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (1988-92), visiting centennial professor of the London School of Economics and Political Science (1992-94), and first deputy foreign minister of Estonia (1991-92).

Rein Müllerson is the author of eleven books on international law and politics and more than 200 articles and reviews. His books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996) and Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007). His latest book is Democracy – A Destiny of Humankind? A Qualified, Contingent and Contextual Case for Democracy Promotion (Nova, 2009)