Time to Stop Talking About Syria?

Okay so it seems like the presence of Arab League monitors has had little (lasting) effect on the violence in Syria and this probably won’t change anytime soon. That’s what you get when you put a Sudanese human rights violator in charge of the mission!

I’m no expert in Syria and my serious interest in the Middle East and its politics was only spawned less than two years ago, but I’ve been studying intervention for many years now and I have a radical idea about what the international community should do in regards to to Syria. This is going to go against the current debate on Syria and, if heard, would likely anger many a human rights advocate, but one should never be afraid of ruffling feathers.

So he we go: the international community should stop discussing intervention in Syria.

[Bracing for Backlash]

Wait, wait, wait… there is a reason for my human rights blasphemy, I promise, and it doesn’t have to do with international politics. Rather, the international community should stop talking (forcible) intervention in order to help save the lives of Syrian civilians. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, I mean interventions are supposed to protect civilians from violence, but talk of intervention without actual intervention can have disastrous effects for the people on the ground. This was the finding of Alan J. Kuperman in a 2008 article in the academic journal International Studies Quarterly. He found that the the current emerging norm of intervention can actually create threats to civilians on the ground. He found that in some cases

rebels will attack state officials deliberately intending to provoke retaliation against their own group’s civilians, to attract international intervention that they deem necessary to attain their political goals. In practice, intervention does sometimes help rebels attain their goals, but usually it is too late or inadequate to avert retaliation against civilians. Thus, the emerging norm causes some genocidal violence that otherwise would not occur (p. 51).

So, in Syria, it definitely looks like there is some accuracy to Kuperman’s findings. For example, the leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), upon seeing the poor results of the Arab League monitors, threatened to escalate attacks against government forces. This strategy would appear to be aimed at increasing the level of violence in the country, so that the international community has not other choice but to finally intervene.

At this point, though, the Syrian people cannot count on the international community taking any effective action any time soon. Because of this, the international community might want to work towards lowering the expectations of the FSA and the Syrian people, so that they do not see intervention as their means to get out from under the Assad regime. One way to do this would be to stop any official talk about intervention, so that it at least appears to be less likely to occur. This would likely have an effect on the strategic calculations of the Syrian rebels/protestors, and might reduce their willingness to escalate the violence within Syria. In turn, this might reduce the chances of civilians being caught between the two forces, and/or being the target of retribution from government forces.

I guess if one isn’t willing to back their words up with action, they might want to stop talking.

What’s Next?

In the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama has an article called “The Future of History,” which compares recent ideological debate, using the Tea Party and Occupy movements as examples. While the basis of the article is about the “decline of the middle class” and its effect on liberal democracy, the author brings up an interesting fact at the start. He points out that in recent years, the left-wing has suffered a “failure in the realm of ideas.” It has been the right-wing that has been the party of ideas, challenging liberalism’s current “dominance” in society. Meanwhile, the Left has only been able to respond to its critics with a “return to an unaffordable form of old-fashioned social democracy.”

Fukuyama suggests that this “absence of a plausible progressive counter-narrative is unhealthy, because competition is good for intellectual debate just as it is for economic activity.” But when dealing with reform, one of the most often heard critiques is that the suggested alternative is “unrealistic” for one reason or another. To have a plausible or realistic alternative, we have to have some idea of what will work and what won’t work, but is it possible to actually know such things?

We all tend to have some sort of preconceived notion of what will work, but do we not limit ourselves in terms of potential alternatives by relying on these notions? This also points to the argument that some (John Ruggie comes to mind) have made that we do not possess the methodological tools to know “what comes next.” So is it even possible for people to create/construct a counter-narrative? If changes requires the construction of such an alternative, does this mean that we need to start being unrealistic? Just imagine the parliamentary/congressional debates that might occur if being realistic was thrown out the window (you thought we had a problem about things not getting done nowadays!).

How does change happen then? If we don’t possess the tools necessary to develop alternatives, then alternatives must present themselves in reality. In my mind, this doesn’t bode well for the ability to make changes in society, but it does fit with how society has changed historically. By this I don’t mean change how an actor/organization behaves, but deeper forms of change, systemic change, that affects the “building blocks” of our social relations. The Peace of Westphalia, dropping the atomic bomb, etc., these are the kinds of significant moments of change that I am talking about, but they come with grievous amounts of death and loss. Even more so, when they occurred no one could have known the long-term implications of these events. No one could have known that the idea of sovereignty could shape behaviour in international society as much as it has or that nuclear weapons could balance the playing field between great powers and lesser powers.

This would imply, then, that change is an accident; it is a byproduct of other events. It may be depressing to think that we are not in control of our own destinies, our ability to respond to the need for change, but the reality is that I think that we are destined to bounce around through history, smashing into obstacles, with no real control. Letting go of our preconceived notions of our ability to change our circumstances (the world) may be exactly what we need for change to occur. Stop trying to control things and let things just happen this is rich coming from me, a real nitpicker and control nut  and, WOW I really sound like a guidance councilor right now.

Though, this is where the problem lies, how could I or anyone else know this? Just a bit frustrating, eh?

R2P and Intervention Models

I’m currently working as a Research Assistant on a project about R2P and the intervention in Libya and as I go through much of the commentary that has emerged  in recent months, mostly in forums like Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and The National Interest, a number of different articles/authors have brought up the choice of tactics that interveners, in this case NATO, use to achieve their mandate. Inevitably, this has led me to ask: was a series of targeted air strikes against military infrastructure the best way to go about protecting Libyan civilians?

Today I read C.J Chivers and Eric Schmitt’s recent article in The New York Times about the unacknowledged (by NATO) human costs of the air strikes in Libya. The authors point out,

By NATO’s telling during the war, and in statements since sorties ended on Oct. 31, the alliance-led operation was nearly flawless – a model air war that used high technology, meticulous planning and restraint to protect civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s troops, which was the alliance’s mandate.

But The New York Times were not willing to accept NATO’s message without verification (which is what good journalists should do!). Instead, they hit the ground in Libya and sought out the real facts. What they found was credible evidence, in the form of medical reports, death certificates and photographs, of the “collateral damage” of the air strikes, otherwise known as the human cost of intervention.

While the article focuses on explaining how and why these civilian deaths occurred, I’m more interested in comparing this to a more “boots on the ground” – approach to intervention. Some of the proponents of the Libyan intervention have applauded the design of the air strike formula because it resulted in zero NATO deaths and was influential in the Libyan rebels’ ability to (eventually) topple the Qaddafi regime. But given the findings of Chivers, Schmitt and The New York Times, I wonder if putting boots on the ground, may have been better for reducing the amount of collateral damage from the intervention.

If faced with the overwhelming combination of NATO forces and Libyan rebels, I have to think that members of the pro-Qaddafi forces would have been quicker to lay down their arms in the face of certain death. This could have shortened the length of the conflict and, in turn, less time for collateral damage to occur. Furthermore, putting boots on the ground would probably have meant less need to arm the Libyan rebels, thus avoiding the current problems facing post-Qaddafi Libya (armed factions competing for political authority).

But, this would place NATO lives at risk, which seems unfathomable given that no NATO lives were lost using air strikes, and still the Qaddafi regime was overturned.

To counter this, it should be remembered that the intent of the intervention was to protect civilian lives. If civilian lives were put at risk by the tactics used by the interveners, one would think that the model would be celebrated less than it currently is. While the ethical considerations should include the cost of intervention for the interveners, intervention should first ensure that the victims benefit (and they should benefit the most!). Could a model that was more risky to interveners produced less collateral damage to civilians, and thus greater benefit? And if so, shouldn’t that be the model of choice rather than the model with the least cost for interveners?

There are no definitive answers to these questions, right now, but I find the lack of these questions, slightly worrisome. If saving as many civilian lives as possible is not the first and foremost priority when designing interventions, this automatically brings into question the legitimacy of the intervention. This is not to say that interventions shouldn’t be undertaken if there is some amount of self-interest is at play, such benevolence is extremely rare and cannot be counted upon, but shouldn’t intervention be more about maximizing lives saved as opposed to minimizing the costs of intervention?

Because right now, it seems like those designing interventions have their priorities mixed up.

Good and Evil in Balance?

This isn’t quite how I planned on restarting my blogging activities after taking an 18-month hiatus (my old blog was on Blogger and can be found at http://acollegialcow.blogspot.com), but I can’t help myself.

Woke up early this afternoon – hey give me a break, I’m a graduate student on holiday – and read that Vaclav Havel had died. I immediately flashed back to my undergraduate days in my Culture & Change class debating the role of the public intellectual and whether or not they should be willing to go to jail for their ideas. I guess this topic and Havel’s writing stuck out in my mind even more because it was one of the few weeks where I actually did the readings… well, that and I liked what Havel was saying (though it’s been so long since I’ve engaged with his works that I’m beginning to forget some of the specifics; maybe I’ll revisit it over the holidays).

Then tonight, my Twitter feed informs me that Kim Jong Il has died, and I can’t help but think that there is some kind of balancing going on in the universe between good and evil – a little comic book-ish, I know. On the one hand you have Havel, this well-respected former leader who put his ideas into action and guided his country through the Velvet Revolution and out from under Soviet-style communism. And on the other hand, there was Kim Jong Il, a dinosaur holding on to power in a crumbling, outdated Cold War communist system, while his people suffered in poverty and fear. And while it might be a bit macabre to suggest that today’s “karma” has been balance, I still can’t help but think that the loss of someone good has been balanced by the loss of someone bad. (Yes, I realize that this is overly-simplistic and that there is a lot of “good” and “evil” in the world and the loss of two person will likely have little impact, but still let me have my fun).

Make’s you kind of wonder what tomorrow will bring, doesn’t it?