Monday, September 23, 2013

Democratic values or human lives? (or the case for letting Assad win)

There’s been a lot of talk these past weeks about the law and logic behind the international response to alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.  As interesting as that is, I’m more intrigued by the rationale behind the last 2 ½ years of balking and half-measures, and whether we, as an international community, have really done the right thing. 

The pertinent question here is, what is more important, defending the underdog and our shared values, or saving lives?  Instinct tells us that the sparing of innocent lives should be our first objective, but do we really take the attitude of General van Molke, who said, "The greatest kindness in war is to bring it to a speedy conclusion,”?  If the international community really believed this, and viewed the conflict in the most utilitarian sense, the war could have been ended years ago with a considerably lower human cost.  It would have simply meant backing away, and leaving Syria to self-determine- essentially, letting the opposition lose. 

Photo credit: Freedom House
We should be careful not to give American assistance to the rebels too much credit- the first CIA funded weapons only reached the opposition a week ago, so clearly it isn’t U.S. lethal aid that has prolonged the conflict.   But without non-lethal aid from the United States and weapons from Turkey and the Gulf states, rebellion would have likely been untenable for the opposition, and thousands of lives may have been spared in what would have been a swiftly-quelled rebellion.

Instead it appears that the international community has been unable to stomach appeasement, or to encourage those whom we have deemed allies within the opposition to agree to “terms less favorable than those which [they] can claim in justice.”  Our short-sighted strategy of nudging the opposition just enough to make them competitive while bickering about who among them is worthy of backing has prolonged the war and undoubtedly cost lives.

We also cannot neglect to consider which post-war power structure would be (or would have been) more stable, and ultimately safer for Syrian civilians.  At this point, regardless of who comes out on top we can expect to see retribution against the losers; atrocities on both sides have shown us both a capacity for violence and a growing normlessness.  It’s difficult to argue, however, that the unseating of Assad would pave the way for a stable Syria and fewer lost lives, at least in the short to medium-term.  The established hierarchy within the Ba’athist regime maintained order for 40 years, and is more equipped to do so than any messy coalition of rebel factions, among which fighting has intensified in past months.  The most rudimentary of lessons from Iraq should be that regime change is not a panacea, and that sometimes order and consistency are preferable to freedom of expression.  

While international opinion on the issue remains murky, recent developments have made the American answer abundantly clear.  America considers its principles to be its only true allies.  The U.S. is inclined to put ideas before people, and democracy and freedom before human security.

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