David Walker

1 September 2013

Over the last few days, the media, blogosphere and twitterverse have been alight with fully justified outrage at the indiscriminate gassing of civilians in a Damascus suburb. Horrifying images of dead and dying children are the latest abomination to emerge from this ugly – even by the usual standards of civil wars – conflict. The reactions to this gross violation of human rights and international law and the calls for intervention that have followed have masked a more critical problem. Fundamentally, the UN Security Council has been divided as effectively as ideological disputes over the Spanish civil war divided the Great Powers of the 1930s. This means that, in spite of the threat of US action, the primary instrument for intervention and resolution is hamstrung: effectively unable to take any action to deal with this conflict. Instead, the international community is deadlocked in appalled inaction much as its predecessors were eighty years ago.

It seems increasingly probable that the US will attack Syria by air or missile at some stage in the very near future. However, these means alone rarely depose authoritarian regimes. A key issue to be resolved is the follow up. Not to put too fine a point on it: intervening in the Syrian conflict, the calls for which is fraught with difficulties. Take for instance the triggering of an intervention under the auspices of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P deals with a very specific set of circumstances and is aimed at the prevention or disruption of genocide or acts of genocide. This is troublesome in this case for two particular reasons. Firstly, while this illegal and immoral attack is an appalling atrocity committed by war criminals that clearly have no regard for the lives of Syrian non-combatant citizens, there is not yet sustained evidence of systematic genocide similar to Rwanda or the Holocaust. Secondly, if the need for an R2P intervention is accepted, the same standards need to be applied equally to both sides: even though there are significant disparities between the two in terms of scope, actions and accountability. This begs the question: ‘why would you trigger an R2P intervention for one atrocity and not another?’ The application of international law and doctrines of intervention cannot be applied on the basis of the international community’s sympathy with one side or the other.

What about the simple formation of a ‘Coalition of the willing’ made up of states opposed to the undoubtedly brutal Assad regime? Although it is tempting to imagine the US, the EU and other powers saddling up and turning Assad’s presidential palace into a smoking tank park, there are other considerations. The Syrian opposition movement, in common with the other opposition movements that have emerged from the Arab Spring, are clearly unified mainly by their hatred of the authoritarian government they oppose rather than by a common political outlook. This makes the politics of intervention difficult for many outside powers. Even though the realpolitik of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ still carries weight, when your enemy’s enemy is an Islamist political party that condemns you as the personification of evil this rationale can be problematic. After the collective experiences of the last decade and a bit in Iraq and Afghanistan it is not difficult to imagine that the appetite for this type of unilateral or minilateral intervention by the Western states is at low ebb. Although it could be spun, considering that only 9% of Americans support a Syrian intervention I could not imagine any circumstances in the next few years where the populations of the Western democracies would willingly consent to engage in a war of uncertain duration followed by an indeterminate period of state building, unless at the direst necessity.

So, what is at issue here is not whether this attack was a war crime or an act of genocide or whether it should trigger an intervention. The main problem is that, in common with Spain, the international community is unable to agree to a unified position. Both of the scenarios discussed above rest on a common definition of state sovereignty for their execution. The divisions between the five permanent members of the Security Council on the application of the principle of state sovereignty that emerged at the beginning of this conflict remain unresolved. The insistence of China and Russia on the application of the inviolability of state sovereignty have placed a seemingly insurmountable barrier to overcoming geopolitical rivalries at the cost of the Syrian population. The entrenched divisions in the P5 imply that action by one side or the other will be met by an equally vigorous blocking response. This delays the simplest of actions. Even getting the UN weapons inspection team across Damascus seemed to be a logistical bridge too far.

Like the 1930s, this means that there are two clear consequences. One is that the inaction of the international community has created an unequal struggle between the regime and the opposition, with obvious consequences. The other, potentially more dangerous issue, is that in place of the vacuum created by the absence of large players, small sub-state or third state sponsored actors will filter into the conflict. This has the potential to shape the protagonists in this conflict in ways that may have blowback for regional and international players post-war.

There is no question that there are clear differences between the civil wars in Spain and Syria. However, there are also some significant similarities that do not speak to a happy outcome for either ordinary Syrians or the international community. Like Spain, there is a lack of will to act decisively by the international community. This is clearly linked to the divisions between the P5. There is also some question of the desirability of the regime that may be in place if Assad is defeated. In the case of Spain the choices were Fascist or Stalinist, in the case of Syria it is most likely Islamist. Apart from the obvious protagonists, such choices did not fill the rest of the world with joy in the 1930s and will not now. Additionally, depending on the outcome, the necessary pursuit of war criminals on both sides could become a tricky exercise in sovereignty. Again, this will only serve to exacerbate the existing international divisions. Although Syria is probably not the penultimate nail in the coffin of the existing international system that Spain was, it clearly highlights some significant differences in approach. The issue of the definition of state sovereignty clearly has the ability to severely hamper the ability of international community to seek resolution to issues like Syria through instruments like the Security Council. The tragedy of this failure is that we will be forced to yet again watch this bloody drama play out its time honoured performance while the world sits on its hands.