The Assad dynasty is not content with slaughtering its own people in great numbers. It is also destroying Syria’s rich archaeological past. Writing last month in the US Weekly Standard, Victoria Coates described the devastation in detail.
The tattered landscape of magnificent ruins, which the desert preserved for centuries is being blown up under a barrage of mortar fire. Crumbling stones are nothing compared to the mangled bodies of Assad’s tortured victims, of course. They are a good illustration, though, of the price of our impotence and the hypocrisy of our policies.
In March 2011, it took a mere six weeks of high profile moral outrage to mobilise Nato into a military mission over the Libyan skies which, arguably, accelerated the downfall of Libya’s dictator, Colonel Gaddafi, and spared much civilian bloodshed. The Libyan adventure left much to be desired — the strategic value of one outcome over the alternative was marginal, the viability of the new regime is doubtful, the anarchy into which the country descended had troublesome consequences, as Gaddafi’s weapons dumps were raided to make their way to sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. But there is no question that Gaddafi was a thug, his people were suffering and letting him slaughter them was unacceptable.
Why, then, when it comes to Assad, is any amount of moral outrage not enough to spur action? The task, in Syria, is admittedly more complex. Its population is three times the size of Libya’s. The terrain is more challenging for military action. China’s and Russia’s opposition will not abate, for fear of losing another precious ally in a contested region where Western influence has always been a thorn in their side. And, most of all, the prospect that the fall of the house of Assad will not necessarily herald the dawn of a better age is dominating the minds of those in the West advocating caution.
These are all reasonable thoughts. But they miss the point. As with archaeological artefacts, inaction will not help preserve the status quo or avoid deterioration. It will simply deny those who stand by the ability to influence the course of history.
From a purely moral point of view, Western inaction is a display of hypocrisy that is bound to undermine future attempts to invoke universal principles in the name of policy. President Obama spoke well, in March 2011, when he said that the potential massacre of civilians in Benghazi, which the Nato no-fly zone successfully prevented, would be “a stain on the conscience of the world” which would “reverberate across the region”. Benghazi was spared the savagery. But Homs, a city of the same size, was raped in broad daylight several times, while our conscience looked on.
Morality is a good argument in politics if it is invoked and applied consistently. There is no moral difference between the slaughter of civilians by a dictatorial regime in Libya, and the slaughter of civilians by a dictatorial regime in Syria. There may be differences of costs, risks, interests, allegiances and regional fallout. But if morality is to be the yardstick of Western intervention, then the price of Western inaction is that our invocation of lofty principles will fall on deaf ears.
What about amoral, cold calculations? Deposing Assad would deprive Iran of its most important strategic asset in the region and very likely turn Syria from an Iranian proxy into an anti-Iranian one. It would remove from power the second worst state sponsor of terrorism in the region and deny Hizbollah a critical source of political and military support. It would probably free Lebanon from the double bind of Syrian colonialism and Iranian hegemony. It could make Russia’s last foothold in the Mediterranean more precarious, if not altogether untenable.
True, there are many unknowns — Syria might go Islamist, like all other Arab countries where dictators have been toppled. It might descend into a sectarian, fratricidal war which would engulf the entire region. Shadowy forces could take advantage of anarchy to lay their hands on Syria’s deadly arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
But these are things that could happen either way, and that Western inaction is more likely to facilitate than to prevent. After all, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey are not exactly playing along with the West as willing bystanders. If the rebels are ultimately armed by Saudi Arabia rather than the West, they will owe a debt of gratitude to Wahhabis rather than Jeffersonians. If Iran and Russia have their way, a nastier Assad regime will survive to murder many more thousands and bolster Syria’s thuggish patrons and their nefarious interests for years to come. If Turkey shapes a future opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood will have a preponderant role and ethnic and religious minorities will suffer, as has already happened elsewhere in the new Middle East. If we let chaos reign, weapons of mass destruction will eventually fall into the wrong hands. In short, the price of inaction is much higher than any type of intervention.