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Syria: a moral intervention

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Who will be there to teach us about morality, and to speak of yet another moral intervention when pictures of brutality show up on our screens, this time committed by the coalition of the “morally righteous”?

Oguz Alyanak
9 September 2013

A year ago in March, at the Friends of the Syrian People conference in Istanbul, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the international community to undertake a “moral intervention”. He argued that only through such an intervention, where “no other concerns, no other interests [should] interfere,” the international community could ensure that their consciences would prevail.

Back then, the United States opposed Erdogan’s proposal, possibly fearing that public opposition to yet another war in the Middle East led by the US (with or without a coalition) could lose Barack Obama much-needed swing votes prior to the November 2012 elections, and therefore his second term in the White House.

After the elections, however, the wind changed direction. Both President Obama and his cabinet’s interest in the Middle East peaked - reaching its climax following the Syrian government’s suspected use of chemical weapons. A week later, based on “firm belief” that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons - thus crossing Barack Obama’s “red line” - Secretary of the State John Kerry declared that “the US had a moral obligation to punish Syria.” A day later, President Obama also described the US role as “moral responsibility.” This emphasis on reinstating morality through military intervention by both presidents is uncanny, and therefore, demands a closer look.

Creating a moral void

In a war that has taken over 100,000 lives so far in over two years, around a thousand deaths in one night has brought us into reorienting our positions from spectators of a massacre to participants in it. We woke up to the morning of August 21 with disturbing frames displaying dead bodies wrapped in kafans, white mortuary shrouds, with each body perfectly aligned as in a family portrait, as if the subjects were in expectation of a photo shoot following their slaughter in Syria. These were the “images of death”, later to be followed by videos providing sound to the grief - of lamenting friends and relatives - a “moral obscenity” as John Kerry put it. Each image corrupted us in a strange way while inviting us to do something, and even if it was already too late, to take an action of some sort.

Since then, the war drums have been beating loudly and firmly, particularly from the American government and supporters of its policy of invasion. An article in The Economist proposed that upon the presentation of the proof (perhaps in a manner not so distant from the 2003 presentation of Colin Powell), and deliverance of an ultimatum (to hand over the chemical arsenal), the American forces had to punish Bashar al Assad. The author of the piece almost shouted at us in an ecstatic voice: “Hit him hard.” The idea behind it seemed to be that with each hit, and each missile, the international community (which, throughout the debates on Syria, is used in an interchangeable manner with the term, “humanity”) would regain its moral stature. Just like seeing Saddam Hussein being hanged, or Muammar Qaddafi beaten up, abused, humiliated and killed, the moment where Bashar al Assad’s death is shared online through amateur footage will be the moment of glory, a vindication of our morality. But where is the morality in that?

Questioning the morality police

Thankfully, not everyone shares triumphant remarks uttered in The Economist essay and many similar war cries. We were all taken by the images, but some of us also remember that a moralistic and retaliatory attitude has not helped to solve much in the past, and may well  likewise not solve anything today. The images of the dead in Syria brought to my mind, for example, the images of Abu Ghraib, of frames displaying bodies mounded into shapeless masses, and reminded me that neither Syrian nor American war is ever clean, and punishment is purely subjective. No doubt using chemical weapons to eliminate civilian masses is a dreadful atrocity; but isn’t it corrupt to judge and punish when you have not only used the same weapons of mass destruction in the past and continue to promote the proliferation of these weapons. It is not much more than troubling that a coalition of the powerful manages to find the higher moral ground every time.

Turkey, which once promoted a foreign policy that prioritized peace and cooperation with its neighbours, has been drawn further into this corrupt vortex. It is ironic to recall that only four years back, Turkey participated in a joint military drill with Syria, which was not much welcomed by the state of Israel. Today, Turkey and Israel are thinking of walking the same path under the guidance of the United States. At the grassroots level, a similar ambiguity prevails. Unlike the responses to Israeli aggression in the region where thousands would gather following Friday prayers, and condemn Israel and America, the streets of the Turkey that I left are surprisingly silent. Perhaps, it is the fatigue that we suffer from in the post-Gezi world. Or more likely, it is the trauma that the images left us with that boggles our minds and pushes us further into justifying any sort of military intervention in the name of moral rectitude.

Who will be there to teach us about morality, and to speak of yet another moral intervention when pictures of brutality show up on our screens, this time committed by the coalition of the “morally righteous”? What a moment of glory that will be for our conscientious selves.

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