The Scandal of Syria


Will the Responsibility to Protect doctrine — which is an international consensus and not a unilateral U.S. foreign policy — be one of the many casualties of the conflict in Syria? Can something be done to help the people of that benighted country? (Photo: UNHCR/ACNUR Américas / Flickr)

Olivia Pope wears the white hat. Or, as fans of the TV show Scandal know, she desperately wants to believe that she wears the white hat. Olivia Pope is a Washington fixer. She has assembled a team of “gladiators” who do whatever necessary — bending the law, breaking the law, tearing the law into tiny little shreds — to defend the “good guys.” But Olivia Pope, despite her name, is not infallible. Her original sin was complicity in a vote-rigging scandal to get her presidential candidate (and secret lover) elected. The Garden of Eden of the Founding Fathers is long gone. Pope and her fiercely loyal disciples live in a fallen world where even the racial politics are not black and white.

Scandal is all about the perennial American desire to right the wrongs of the world and claim the mantle of savior. Combine American pragmatism with American messianic zeal and you get America the Fixer. But if power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then you can imagine what happens in the new Rome of Washington, DC when the gladiators set out to fight the good fight: not much good comes of it. But unlike House of Cards, a world of murk lit only the Nietzschean will to power, the characters on Scandal believe that they are enacting a fundamentally religious drama of good versus evil. At the end of nearly every episode, they cling to the few battles they’ve won as evidence that their hats somehow remain unbesmirched in the mud fight of the DC power game.

Today we confront the fallen world of Syria. Is this House of Cards territory where ambition and revenge battle for supremacy and there is nothing to do but watch the horrors unfold before our eyes? Or do we believe that, despite our own original sins, we Americans can don the white hat and fix things in Syria?

Few dispute the horrors taking place in Syria. The numbers are staggering. The death toll has climbed above 140,000. Just consider what’s happened to the children of Syria. “More than one million children are now refugees,” writes Annie Sparrow in The New York Review of Books. “At least 11,500 have been killed because of the armed conflict, well over half of these because of the direct bombing of schools, homes, and health centers, and roughly 1,500 have been executed, shot by snipers or tortured to death.”

The latest government tactic has been to drop barrels of explosives on civilian targets. And indeed, the Syrian government is responsible for the lion’s share of atrocities. But the opposition, once a band of non-violent protestors, has swelled to include several extremely unsavory groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose murderous rule over territory it captured forced other opposition factions to swing away from the fight against Assad to re-liberate the supposed liberated zones.

To make sense of this all-encompassing horror, we tend to focus on discrete elements that might be subject to resolution. Last fall, the Syrian government agreed to a deal to give up its chemical weapons and has until June 30 to hand everything over (it has provided 11 percent of the material but is currently dragging its feet). UN mediator for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has focused on finding overlap between the Syrian government’s desire to “stop terrorism” and the opposition’s demand for “political transition.” A second round of negotiations recently ended without any hint of compromise, and no third round has been set.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Syrians stranded on opposition-held islands surrounded by government forces are now on the verge of starvation. Several attempts have been made to negotiate safe travel for aid caravans to save these civilians — to no avail. “The Syrian government is cruelly punishing civilians living in opposition-held areas,” says Philip Luther of Amnesty International. “Starving civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime. The blockades must be lifted immediately and access to humanitarian aid must never be used to score military or political gains.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has called this situation “absolutely scandalous” and urged stronger action. Physicist Stephen Hawking has weighed in with a plea for the war to end. Liberals and conservatives on The Washington Post op-ed page agree on the need for action. Michael Gerson appeals to Obama on moral grounds; Richard Cohen simply calls on the Fixer-in-Chief to “do something!”

But do what?

For Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, writing in The New York Times last week, the answer is clear: “An external, international force must be introduced to guarantee the safe passage of food and medicine to starving Syrian civilians.” And if the whole international community is unwilling to invoke the Responsibility to Protect, “then at least some countries should step up and organize Syria’s democratically oriented rebel groups to provide the necessary force on the ground, with air cover from participating nations.”

Critics of the piece, like Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Rob Prince, have argued that Postel and Hashemi minimize the responsibility of the Syrian opposition for the violence and downplay the role of Salafist elements within the opposition. “Perhaps the sorriest assumption of their argument is that the United States can save the day and end the humanitarian tragedy in Syria by riding in on its white heavenly horse laden with cruise missiles and drones,” Prince writes in Focal Points, the FPIF blog. “Are they forgetting Washington’s long record of supporting totalitarian regimes in exchange for oil in the Middle East and elsewhere, and whose involvement in the Syrian tragedy is, incidentally, far from innocent?”

Prince concludes by recommending an immediate ceasefire, the cessation of funding and arming foreign mercenaries, and renewed diplomatic efforts. He demands that the United States, despite its numerous sins, do the right thing by throwing its weight more squarely behind negotiations.

Virtually everyone, in other words, is pressing the U.S. government to do something. Threaten air strikes. Fund the rebels. Invest more political capital in the negotiating framework. Do something!

We have, of course, been here before. A humanitarian crisis — or large-scale human rights debacle — confronts the world, the international community watches and deliberates, and at least two sides square off in the U.S. policy world over how Washington should respond. In Bosnia, the emphasis was on lifting the arms embargo so that the Bosnian army would not be at a disadvantage against the Serbian and Croatian militias. In Libya, the emphasis was on using force — in the form of a no-fly zone and aerial bombing — to prevent Gaddafi from crushing the opposition. But since geopolitics is run by governments — not by humanitarian charities — motivations other than simply saving the children enter the equation. The U.S. government juggles a number of factors: balance of power, access to natural resources, the usefulness of toppling a nettlesome leader, the likely success of an intervention, the pressure of public opinion, and so on. As such, each situation presents a different constellation of on-the-ground factors and above-the-fray motivations.

David Rieff knows all about this calculus. Because of his experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, and other warzones of the 1990s, the journalist and essayist came to embrace what he called “liberal imperialism.” As he put it in his book of essays At the Point of a Gun, “In the aftermath of Kosovo, and with the catastrophe of Africa in my nostrils and my brain, I could see no other alternative to western military power — above all to U.S. power.” The only way to “mitigate the horror” was to use brute force: to stop the whole-scale slaughter of Bosnians, Rwandans, Iraqis, and so on.

But his flirtation with liberal imperialism turned sour. He saw what happened in Iraq and, as with many liberal hawks who suddenly found themselves in bed with neoconservatives, he had some serious second thoughts. He didn’t become a pacifist. But he jumped off the interventionist bandwagon in favor of a case-by-case analysis. In the case of Syria, his position has been clear. In the initial debate on the virtues of invoking Right to Protect and intervening in Syria, he came out strongly in favor of doing nothing. Later, with the prospect of U.S. military strikes in the wake of the August chemical weapons attack, he labeled the proposal on the table “a pointless act of moral hubris and geostrategic stupidity.”

In the 1990s, Rieff donned the white hat and entered the fray as a gladiator for the “good guys.” He still does not avert his eyes from the horrors of the world. But at least in the case of Syria, he believes that intervention will only make matters worse.

Recovering addicts always make compelling cases since they’ve been to hell and back.

Perhaps President Obama falls into this category as well, having been tasked to handle inherited messes (Afghanistan, Iraq) and witnessing the consequences of messes that were at least partly of his own making (Libya). Although he is no stranger to extrajudicial killings by way of the administration’s expanded drone program, the president acknowledges the diminishing utility of military force. In a recent conversation with David Remnick, the president offered a fairly modest recipe: “Our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power — mainly the Iranians and the Russians — as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they’re not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.”

But the question remains: will the Responsibility to Protect doctrine — which is an international consensus and not a unilateral U.S. foreign policy — be one of the many casualties of the conflict in Syria? Can something be done to help the people of that benighted country?

Here are four guiding principles. First, as doctors say, do no harm. Second, diplomacy is the only process that can lead to a sustainable, long-term solution. Third, however, force is an inevitable feature of geopolitics, and the international community has agreed that institutions of international authority should wield force on behalf of the suffering. Finally, Syria would be much better off if Assad went into exile and foreign mercenaries went home. Can these four statements be combined in a way to help alleviate suffering in Syria in the here and now?

Any threat of force to get aid to the suffering must be very narrowly targeted. It cannot be at the service of regime change — however much I would love to see Assad’s exit — or to help any of the combatants. And it must be truly international, including Russia and China if at all possible. Getting international actors to agree to an airlift of food and medicine to the besieged starving — echoes of the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949 — might help build trust and would expand on what the UN already started in December.

But feeding the hungry in the middle of a warzone is palliative care of the worst kind if not accompanied by a broader strategy. Actions must be taken to reduce the overall level of violence in Syria by cutting off the flow of arms to all sides as part of a general ceasefire. At the same time, negotiations must address the underlying interests of both sides, which hinge on the question of political transition. There must be just enough change to satisfy the opposition and not so much to jeopardize the lives of the ruling party and its supporters. The semi-free election that Poland held in June 1989 is one example of just such a compromise, as economist Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out.

Yes, we live in a fallen world, and nowhere more so than in Washington, DC. We could bemoan the sinful nature of past U.S. conduct or the fundamentally unfixable nature of the Syrian conflict and fall back on James Baker’s conclusion about Bosnia that “we have no dog in that fight.” Therein lies a comfortable and amoral isolationism. But the United States has an obligation to engage in the world and help solve global problems — not because we are a superpower or because we have all (or any) of the answers. No, it is because we have responsibilities as global citizens. Moreover, like wealthy taxpayers, we must contribute more because of how much we have benefited from an international system that we helped put into place.

Still, we have to acknowledge that U.S. power is limited, and we are not the fixers of last resort. We do not wear the white hats, in Syria or anywhere else. This is, indeed, a scandal — to everyone who still believes in American exceptionalism after all these blood-drenched years.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Michael_Greenwald

    The Lord did not come down and sprinkle holy water on the White House. Furthermore, the mantel of the eternal savior is in the laundry. It’s well that Obama did not listen to the mob and get us into this mess. Every time we DON’T have a war we save $1trillion/year not counting lost lives and not counting all the people on the other side who would hate us. Win-win.

    Perhaps the author can explain how we make friends and allies out of two sects that started hating each other in the 7th century. Can we get Republicans and Democrats to agree? And their dispute is not about who represents God!

    When all the choices are bad ones, sometimes doing nothing is a good choice. And we better start saving our pennies. After this is over the world will expect us to pick up the reconstruction tab.

  • Tom Tan

    This article starts off sound and reasonable, but descends into the kind of utter rubbish we’ve heard many times before.

    First “we” are not the US government, and the US government is not a single entity with a unified will. There are a levy of competing vested interests in control of key policy making institutions, and they behave according to their own ends and intents, not that of the general public, and certainly not that of wistful, self righteous journalists crusading for their cause celebre of the week. Where were the Americans in Guatemala, when hundreds of thousands were killed by death squads? Where were the Americans in Afghanistan in the 1990’s when there existed a genuine opportunity to thwart the atrocities of the Taliban by assisting the sole figure in the region (Massoud) who could have stood up to them? Where are the Americans in the current drug war south of the border, to stop its ceaseless bloodshed? It has
    always been the case that if there existed no material interest for the
    United States to intervene in some troubled part of the world, then it
    wouldn’t sacrifice as much as a bootprint for it. If a US citizen wants to privately go to Syria, Ukraine, Mexico or any of these places to fight for justice, or send his own hard earned cash to that end, let him display his global responsibility that way. You prattle about the secure amorality of isolationism, as if the right moral thing to do was expect “governmommy” which spins and obfuscates its means and ends, to serve as a hammer of justice around the world at your behest (and with others’ tax dollars). Your will is not the will of the American people, no matter how hard you try to nag them. To its sole credit, our government never makes key foreign policy decisions based on the lamentations of bleeding heart intellectuals either.

    Secondly, the United States government is in part, has its hands bloody with this crisis. It has been arming rebels and fomenting unrest in there for years. Did it fail to make the distinction between radical jihadists and liberal democrats? If it were so stupid, then for the sake of the nation’s safety, it has no authority to rule. But, it seems more likely that their viewpoint of them was, in the words of Chairman Deng, it doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice. The US, as you seem to be aware, has no moral obligation to help the Syrian people, instead it will pursue its own geopolitical goals in the area – containment of Iran and isolation of Russia. And you’re expecting that same entity to use force with restraint towards humanitarian ends? This is all about oil. Assad was building a pipeline and the Saudis don’t want competition. Hence, they are trying their hardest to oust him, and the US government has been merrily playing along.

    What saddens me about this is that you, the author of this drivel, does not whiff of a shameless neocon or military imperialist. You don’t want to build, through military force and brutal expansionism, a glorious American Reich that encompasses the world. Rather you use mild words and seemingly moderate rhetoric to reach the same same faulty conclusions based on half truths and moralizing that have been shoved down our throats by decades of nationalist, imperialist propaganda, even though you should know better. In other words, you are a useful idiot, trying to sell snake oil interventionism that we fell for time and time again in the past, instead of exposing the American foreign policy fraud, as expected of a genuinely liberal journalist. The only thing we can do, as a nation, in relation to our “elected rulers” is to strongly voice our opposition to ANY sort of intervention. Only a numerous and powerful front of public’s dissent, can have an impact on this irresponsible, out of control regime in Washington. This is the only rational way to not just preserve American lives, money and world prestige, which happens to be further cast into shambles with each “humanitarian intervention”, but also to avoid causing more suffering and bloodshed to those very people in violent regions that our political meddling, if history is to judge, inevitably brings.