This year, Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) falls on the eve of another round of negotiations in Geneva that are unlikely to end the war in Syria – the latest case of mass killing that the international community has failed miserably to halt.
HMD has long been about more than just remembering the Holocaust and its victims. The failure of the world to prevent the crime of the Nazis or to come to the rescue of its victims provoked the cry of ‘Never again’. Today, the cry sounds as forlorn as ever.
The cause of intervention to prevent genocide and other mass crimes has had its ups and downs since the twin tragedies of Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s made it an issue in international politics.
Then, the discrediting of the international community by its wilful failures to intervene to halt genocide, and of those Western statesmen implicated in the failure, motivated their successors to do better.
Hence, a series of international military interventions to halt atrocities, beginning with Kosovo and East Timor in 1999 and culminating in the saving of Benghazi from Colonel Gaddafi’s forces in 2011.
There were terrible failures elsewhere, including Darfur and Congo. But the unanimous adoption of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) by the 2005 UN World Summit, committing the world to acting to prevent genocide, war-crimes and crimes against humanity even within the borders of sovereign states, seemed to have laid the ghosts of Bosnia and Rwanda to rest.
It was not to be.
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With the massacre at Homs, Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime has given notice to the world that the slaughter in Syria will continue until it falls, which it must inevitably do in the not-too-distant future. The question is how many people will be killed before it does. The fall of this regime will be a tremendous step for peace and progress in the Middle East. Yet set against the strong humanitarian and geopolitical arguments in favour of intervention is awareness of the price that we will have to pay to do so.
In Libya, the human loss involved in the overthrow of Gaddafi was greatly reduced thanks to Western military intervention; without it, the Gaddafi regime would probably still be slaughtering civilians today. The West has not been hypocritical in singling out Libya for military intervention. Libya differed from the start from other countries affected by the Arab spring, insofar as the rebels captured large areas of ground, which could then be defended by regular military means. It is something else entirely to protect civilians from the soldiers and police of a regime that still controls the ground in question. Even in Libya, we could not immediately protect civilians in Tripoli and other towns under Gaddafi’s military control from his security forces; these had to be driven out or destroyed first, and this was only possible because we began with rebel forces, in control of substantial liberated territories, that could be defended and built up. That is why the accusations that the West has been ‘hypocritical’ in intervening in Libya, but not in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria, have been unfounded. But the situation in Syria is rapidly approaching the stage when a Libyan-style intervention may be feasible.
The overthrow of the Syrian regime is both a pressing humanitarian necessity and would bring enormous benefits to the Middle East. Baathist Syria has shown an exceptional readiness to massacre its own citizens, perhaps surpassed in the Arab world only by its defunct Baathist counterpart in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The current slaughter still has not reached the scale achieved by Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad at Hama in 1982, when as many as 40,000 may have been massacred, but the Hama massacre should stand as a warning to what may yet occur if the outside world does not act. Furthermore, Baathist Syria plays an exceptionally egregious role in regional affairs: as the principal regional ally of Iran, supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas and most virulently anti-Israel of all Arab states, it contributes more than any other Arab regime to obstructing Middle Eastern peace. The overthrow of this regime would lower Arab-Israeli tension, weaken extremist forces in the region and further isolate the regime in Tehran.
On the other hand, however overwhelming the case for humanitarian intervention in Syria is, the West will pay a stiff price in propaganda terms if and when it does. Unlike Gaddafi’s Libya, but like Saddam’s Iraq, the Syrian dictatorship is based upon the rule of a religious minority over a majority. As Saddam’s regime embodied Sunni Arab hegemony over Kurds and Shia Arabs, so Assad’s regime embodies Alawi hegemony over Sunnis. The overthrow of the Syrian regime will inevitably be bloody and is likely to assume the appearance, at some level, of an Alawi-Sunni inter-communal slaughter. Although Western military intervention, by speeding the transition, may result in less bloodshed than would otherwise be the case, it will inevitably mean that the West will be blamed for whatever such bloodshed – undoubtedly substantial – does occur. The massive slaughter that followed the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, perpetrated above all by the Iraqi insurgency, was not caused by the US intervention – although the Bush Administration’s clumsy occupation policy undoubtedly exacerbated the problem. The fall of that regime would inevitably have had a bloody aftermath involving substantial violence between Sunni and Shia elements. But the US’s role in overthrowing it did mean that the US was blamed for the violence that occurred; violence that, more than anything else, discredited the intervention.
This does not mean that the West and its allies should refrain from intervening. But it does mean that we should be extremely careful how we do so, studying the lessons of the propaganda disaster in Iraq as well as of the essentially successful interventions in Kosovo and Libya, and treating the propaganda front in any future intervention as of primary importance. We do not need a UN Security Council resolution to intervene, and it would be wrong to grant the Assad regime’s friends in Moscow and Beijing absolute power to block intervention. But we do need a broad coalition incorporating Arab states, Turkey and (informally) Israel, and enjoying at least the passive approval of a significant part of the international community as a whole.
As a precursor, Britain and other Western states that have not done so should recognise the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, withdraw recognition from Assad’s regime and draw up plans to provide arms, training and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army. The coalition should prepare the ground for the eventual imposition of a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria, and for air strikes to defend cities liberated by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel forces, if and when this becomes strategically and diplomatically feasible. A no-fly zone could be followed by the establishment of a liberated area in northern Syria under Turkish-led Western military protection, where Syrian civilians would be safe and where rebel forces could operate freely and begin to build a new administration for the country.
Two further conditions should be met before such full military intervention is launched. The first should be an unambiguous request for such intervention on the part of the Syrian National Council. The second should be confidence that any intervention would have to be reasonably safe for the forces intervening – Kosovo and Libya were successes in part due to the absence of Western casualties, which the Western public, after the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, will not tolerate.
Western leaders need to be very clear, however: though we can help the Syrian revolution to defeat the old order, we cannot guarantee that it has a happy outcome. It is the responsibility of the Syrian people and their revolutionary bodies – the Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army and Syrian Revolution General Commission – to do this, and above all to prevent any sectarian bloodletting. But come what may, we should never accept the premise that those outside forces trying to halt the bloodbath are the villains: that title goes to the murderous regime in Damascus, and to its criminal defenders – in Tehran, Moscow and Beijing.
Courtesy of Dan Murphy in the Christian Science Monitor, we learn that Colonel Gaddafi’s son and intended heir Saif al-Islam, whose recent speech warned Libyans to ‘Be ready for a new colonial period from America and Britain’ and pledged that ‘We will fight to the last man and woman and bullet’, had received his PhD from the London School of Economics in 2008 for a dissertation entitled ‘The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions: from “soft power” to collective decision making ?’
According to The Guardian, ‘While studying for his PhD, Saif enjoyed a life of considerable luxury in one of London’s wealthiest and most prestigious suburbs. In August 2009 Gaddafi bought his son a £10m house in north London. Inside the neo-Georgian eight-bedroom mansion, Saif could relax in his own swimming pool sauna room, whirlpool bath and suede-lined cinema room.’ After graduating, Saif al-Islam gave the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance a grant of £1.5 million, via an NGO that he headed. Professor David Held, one of the directors of Global Governance, was quoted at the time as saying ‘This donation will support us as we work to increase understanding of global problems and to encourage interaction between academics and policy makers.’ Held went on: ‘It is a generous donation from an NGO committed to the promotion of civil society and the development of democracy.’ Furthermore, it was reported that Saif al-Islam ‘had requested Professor Held’s assistance in developing a Centre for Democracy and Civil Society in Tripoli’. The late Professor Fred Halliday was alone among LSE staff in cautioning against acceptance of the donation. Saif al-Islam also gave a lecture entitled “Libya: Past, Present, Future” at LSE in 2009 as part of a series on the future of global capitalism, according to the Times Higher Education.
In light of the recent regime violence in Libya, the LSE has severed its ties with the regime and halted all activities funded by Saif al-Islam’s grant. The LSE students’ union responded by saying ‘We welcome the school’s decision to take no further funding from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, however, we believe that this does not go far enough. The school should take action to ensure that the money that was stolen from the Libyan people for our benefit is now used for the benefit of Libyan people.’ It called on LSE to ‘work towards creating a scholarship fund for underprivileged Libyan students using the £300,000 that LSE has already accepted.’
Greater Surbiton News Service
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