When I was in my first year of grad school in Denver I remember sitting in a conflict resolution class and discussing the great humanitarian crises since the end of the Soviet Union. Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Kurds in northern Iraq, Darfur… all times where the world watched and let atrocities occur. I studied these events and causes, so it is not as though I do not have an understanding of how they happen and why the world waits. However, it was still hard for me to quite believe that when tragedies occur and innocent people are dying by the hundreds and by the thousands, we may still sit by and do nothing.
The situation in Syria has brought me to a new awareness of how it happens, though. Seeing and experiencing life as a tragedy is allowed to continue does not permit one to continue to imagine that reality is other than it is. It is easier to keep to the status quo; activity is always more difficult than inactivity. When Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, no one was expecting what came next. The idea that the story of one frustrated young man could ignite a search for liberty and dignity in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya that would topple governments and bring about new democracies is incredible. That its influence would spread reform to many more nations – astounding. That the flame still burns in Syria after all that the people there have endured from the Syrian government underlines the power of human desire for freedom, liberty, and control over their own destiny. Freedom from being shot at would no doubt be a plus.
Unfortunately, the Syrian people have had to take the hard road to liberty. Some might argue that it is best this way, for having paid such a price for liberty must aid in remembering its value. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The Syrians are certainly doing that. However, that sentiment is not what makes the world hesitate from intervening; surely enough blood has been spilled, and no one likes to see people suffering and dying. Reasonably speaking, it is Russia and China who block intervention. Without the authority of a United Nations Security Council resolution, no one is prepared to intervene under their own authority as an independent state using Responsibility to Protect doctrine. No state has a vested interest in the outcome sufficient to risk its blood and treasure in a unilateral military intervention. Yet we cannot forget that there are still tens of thousands dying in Syria. Why does this continue?
Russia does not want to give up its last Mediterranean client state, or its Syrian naval base at Tartus. It does not want to see the US score a victory against Iran, and is opposed to military intervention in general – unless it is doing it, of course. Russia also fears the economic hit from having supported the losing side. China is also opposed to interventions as a compromiser of state sovereignty, and was Syria’s top trading partner in 2011. The EU, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are all involved in the Syrian crisis, yet none have chosen to intervene beyond UN initiatives that Russia and China block, economic sanctions, and reportedly supplying opposition fighters with arms.
As for the United States, the traditional initiator of military intervention post-1991 has heavily supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya, not to mention encouraging reform more broadly. However, Americans do not see any thanks for this coming from Egypt in particular, and generally feel that US influence is weaker as a result of the Arab Spring – which is probably correct. The US military is also under pressure of worldwide commitments – most visibly and expensively in Afghanistan – and no one has the appetite for another military intervention. The US political situation is polarized to the point of near dysfunction, the President is locked in an election battle, and the continuing impact of the recession has focused Americans on the economy and desperately needed jobs creation. Without a large oil output, a Syrian intervention cannot be folded into an economic argument.
Americans also have reservations about the likelihood of Sunni Syria following another part of the doctrine of liberty, as expressed by Thomas Paine: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” What would happen to Syria’s Alawite and Christian minorities after an opposition victory? Would the Sunni opposition be able to restrain itself from retribution for the atrocities committed against it? That those atrocities are being committed makes it imperative that al-Assad leave, but the possibility for a second wave of mass killing and oppression to follow that makes for hesitation. While Americans – notably the far right – may not care for the cautious approach of Obama, there is little popular agitation on the subject of Syria that would induce him to change his approach.
Finally, America’s ally Turkey is Syria’s neighbor and is a Muslim country itself. Turkey’s military power is more than equal to the task of ending the killing in Syria. Any military intervention into Syria should logically be led by Turkey. Yet it does not act. What pressure that would otherwise be on the US to act is largely removed by the inaction of Turkey. Combined with the lack of US appetite for another war – particularly another Middle East war – and the US is reduced to working through the UN and sanctions.
It is not pretty, but it is understandable. Which in its own way makes all the more tragic. Our support for the Arab Spring was an act of principle, but it feels as though America is still removed from the time when President Kennedy said “[l]et every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Of course, what country actually manages to fully live up to ideals?
American and EU economic support against the Assad regime has almost certainly helped the Syrian cause, and Syria’s people will win their battle against government oppression. They have had some support but it will unquestionably be their victory when they do prevail. However, winning the peace and not taking vigilante justice to the Alawites and regime-supporting Christians will be a tall order given the violence the opposition has endured. We should be ready as an international community to help them transform their eventual military victory into a true one for the people of Syria.
Syria has shown us how tragedy can occur; soon it will be time to see what can be built from it.