Syria's war is posing acute problems to western political leaders. The largest-scale use of chemical weapons to date, in opposition-held areas east of Damascus on 21 August 2013, killed over 350 civilians and hospitalised 3,000 more. The crisis this has unleashed is bringing the United States and France at least closer to direct military intervention, something that western states have avoided for over two years; though Britain, following the parliamentary vote late on 29 August, will not be involved as its government had wished. Indeed, the controversy in Britain reflects a wider lack of clarity in the international debate following the Ghouta attack. On all sides there is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty, especially on the issue of intervention.
The double conjuncture
Mass killings of civilians in the Syrian civil war are nothing new: it is estimated that 120,000 have already died since the early months of 2011. Many have been victims of deliberate violence against civilians, mainly by government forces. But the Ghouta massacre is a radical escalation: the world rightly regards the use of chemical weapons as a particularly heinous crime. Although sceptics ask what the regime had to gain by using them, it has been plausibly suggested that this was revenge carried out by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, whose division has been responsible for numerous atrocities.
The Damascus chemical attack came soon after the serial large-scale massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by the military regime in Egypt, in which even more civilians died. This slaughter was particularly shocking because, unlike Syria, there is no civil war. True, there had been killings by the army and security forces at all stages of the revolution, but there was also a reform process after the previous authoritarian regime had (apparently) been overthrown. Yet the crude, exclusive policies of the new Brotherhood regime of President Mohamed Morsi fomented widespread opposition among secular Egyptians and provoked the military to seize power. Their mass killing, following the overthrow of the democratically-elected government, was directed almost exclusively against unarmed civilians.
It is important to look at these two cases together, for their similarities and differences alike. Both show extreme violence against civilians, and represent setbacks for hopes of democratic change in the middle east; yet they also highlight contrasting national-political trajectories, and very divergent international responses.
Two cases of genocidal violence
Both these mass killings are cases of genocidal violence. Syria and Egypt's regimes are treating significant sections of the civilian population as enemies to be destroyed - the key criterion for genocide. In Egypt, the military’s overthrow of President Morsi and arrests of the Brotherhood’s supreme leader and many other key figures represent a comprehensive attack on the movement’s political and wider social power. The mass killings seem intended only to weaken the popular support which the movement enjoys among a large minority of the population (large enough to have produced Morsi’s win in the 2012 election), but also specifically to destroy its activist base and capacity for street mobilisation.
In Syria's civil-war context it seems likely that in many cases, regime forces attack armed groups and civilians at the same time. This makes it more difficult to determine deliberate attacks on civilians as such, separately from the "collateral damage" of attacks on armed groups. Opposition atrocities, even though much smaller in scale, make the task of analysis more complex. In this situation, the importance of the new chemical attack for international perceptions is that it cannot be represented as a side-effect of the armed conflict.
The genocidal character of this violence has also gone unrecognised because of two major misconceptions about genocide. It is assumed that genocide must take the form of a coherent large-scale campaign against an entire population group, which must be defined by ethnicity, nationality, race or religion. But genocidal violence can also take more limited forms, such as genocidal massacres. It can be conducted against groups regarded mainly as political, rather than ethnic or religious, enemies.
The political role of genocide
In Egypt, genocidal massacres have so far been used as a method to reinforce repression. It is not clear whether the military’s campaign will escalate to all-out violence against the Muslim Brotherhood’s entire popular base and the comprehensive destruction of the movement, or whether the military will be content with having put the Brotherhood "in its place", i.e. outside the political process.
The chances of escalation may well depend on how the Brotherhood responds. If the movement can sustain large-scale mobilisations, the regime may feel the need to use even deeper repressive violence. Equally, if the Brotherhood resorts to armed resistance, the regime may be emboldened to use violence in an even more sweeping way against the areas where the movement is presumed to enjoy most support. Egypt could descend into something like the "dirty war" that Algeria experienced after its Islamist party’s election victory at the end of 1991 was prevented.
In Syria, genocide has been used episodically to reinforce the regime’s military campaign, in sweeping bombardments of rebel-supporting areas, localised attacks on Sunni villagers assumed to support the rebels, and the rounding up of military-age men in some conquered areas.
Here also the future direction is unclear, even after the latest atrocity. The regime is already being blamed for further assaults such as dropping phosphorus-type bombs on a school in northern Syria. Yet it may still not have an interest in a wholesale campaign against population groups presumed to support the rebels, which would be internationally counterproductive and distract from the prime military contest.
The historical context
Both types of genocide have been widespread in other conflicts, so neither manifestation is very surprising. The genocidal targeting of politically defined populations has been recurrent at least since the Spanish military launched its campaign against Republicans, socialists, anarchists and communists at the start of the civil war in 1936. There were many examples during the cold war, such as the killing of around half a million presumed communist supporters by the Indonesian military and its allies in 1965, and the mass killings of leftists and their presumed supporters in several Latin American countries in the 1970s-80s (and later in Colombia).
In the post-cold-war era, electoral contests in many countries have seen bloody campaigns against supporters of opposing parties, often identified by a shifting combination of party and ethnic markers; Kenya, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe are among the examples. In some of these cases, local party organisers and militias have been as important instigators of violence as national leaders.
Civil wars too, which often become internationalised, have been notoriously prone to genocidal violence. The new wave of "sectarian" killings in Iraq in recent months is a reminder that the mixed international-civil war following the United States-led invasion in 2003 led to mutual campaigns of genocidal killings and expulsions by Sunni-based militias against Shi'a, and Shi'a-based militias against Sunni, which turned four million Baghdadis and other Iraqis into displaced people and refugees.
Together these two more limited forms of genocidal violence - directly political and electoral targeting of civilians, and war-related targeting - are the principal forms of genocide in the 21st-century world. In other words, genocide in the "global era" takes a different from than the racially-driven centralised campaigns against ethnic or national groups that was seen in the mid-20th century. Genocide is now part of the messy political and armed conflicts of the era of democratic revolution.
The shocking upsurge of slaughter in the middle east, the world region where the most bitter conflicts of democratisation are concentrated, underlines the contemporary significance of Michael Mann’s argument that genocide is a "dark side of democracy". As authoritarian rulers, militaries and security apparatuses fight or manoeuvre to hold on to power, they are prepared in the end to use extreme violence against populations.
The "democratic" context is also emphasised by the fact that in both Egypt and Syria, rulers have been able to count on substantial popular support for their murderous repression. In Egypt, indeed, much of the "secular" and "liberal" camp has endorsed the massacres, and the abuse of Mohammed al-Baradei for his resignation from the government suggests that some of those who reject the repression of the Brotherhood may share its fate, if the conflict escalates. In Syria, the Assad regime retains the support of many Alawites and other non-Sunni.
"It’s not even about Syria"
The difference in western governments’ responses to Egypt and Syria is only partly explained by the fact that Egypt’s military is at once an ally of Washington, supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, and a long-term enemy of Assad. It's also important that Syria’s atrocities have continued for two years now, making a mockery of western condemnation and United Nations-backed international principles such as the "responsibility to protect".
So when British prime minister David Cameron says, "It’s not even about Syria"’ (Times, 28 August 2013), he is not simply wrong. He means that the principle of preventing chemical attacks on populations is at stake, and that the "international community" must show that it upholds this. Western concern is certainly better than the indifference with which it treated Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Kurds at Halabja in 1988.
At the same time, the phrase indicates the troubling nature of western leaders’ responses. Thousands of Syrians have suffered from the chemical attack: the victims, their families and communities need help and justice, as have millions of victims of the Syrian regime for more than two years. In this context, Cameron’s remark is simply crass at the most basic level. After the parliamentary vote, he is no longer in a position to use even limited force against the regime, and it is not clear whether, or how far, the military actions planned by President Obama will address Syrian civilian victims' needs.
Indeed, the rhetoric surrounding the arguments for action betray confused motives. It is stated that Bashar al-Assad should be "punished": certainly, but surely in the International Criminal Court (ICC), where Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi should join him. It is argued , citing the "responsibility to protect", that future chemical attacks should be deterred; but Syrian civilians require direct protection now from huge, ongoing violence - whether chemical or not. The proposed missile attacks on command facilities cannot provide real protection, as the Syrian regime hardly needs sophisticated infrastructure to conduct atrocities against defenceless men, women and children.
Moreover, the deterrence argument is limited when seen in a wider context. Even if rulers elsewhere in the middle east continue to use guns rather than chemicals, massacres remain the norm; and when they take place in states allied to the west, the west largely tolerates them.
The basis of judgment
The western military action - if and when it takes place - is about Syria, of course, in that it will partially degrade the regime’s military capacities, as happened in Libya, and tip the balance more in favour of the opposition. But there have also been many suggestions from western leaders that we must "show" Assad that atrocities don’t pay. The overwhelming impression is that these will be limited, demonstrative strikes, not the beginning of serious western attempts to ensure Assad’s defeat and the opposition’s victory.
Ultimately, therefore, "It’s not about Syria" in a further sense. Western leaders are trying to act now, because they finally believe that they cannot be seen to be ineffective in the face of brazen disregard of what they profess to stand for. This putative military action is most obviously about the west’s credibility, about Barack Obama’s face - and for François Hollande of France, if no longer David Cameron - an opportunity to cut a figure on the world stage, to distract from domestic woes.
In the end, though, it is vital to judge military action in terms of its effects on Syria. It is unclear how much any western action will change the balance between government and opposition, and how the Syrian regime and its regional allies will respond. In the short-to-medium term, the war could become more savage as a wounded but not incapacitated regime seeks to assert its diminished strength, while the opposition seeks to take advantage of the western strikes.
If, then, the outcome is to provoke Assad into further atrocities, will this eventually lead to more decisive western action which will end his regime? That is anyone's guess. What does seem certain is that there will be no end to the Syrian civil war, or a general reduction in civilian harm, any time soon.