Syria Through a Glass Darkly

The Damascus government correctly perceives the combat tide is turning in its favour, writes Falk.

By Richard Falk

There is a new mood of moral desperation associated with the ongoing strife in Syria that has resulted in at least 135,000 deaths, 9.3 million Syrians displaced, countless atrocities, and urban sieges designed to starve civilians.

As the second round of negotiations in Geneva ended as fruitlessly as the earlier round, there is a sense that diplomacy is a performance ritual without any serious intent to engage in conflict-resolving negotiations. The Damascus regime wants an end to armed opposition, while the insurgency insists upon setting up a transition process that is independently administered and committed to the election of a new political leadership.

The gap is too big, especially as the Syrian government correctly perceives the combat tide was turning in its favour, leading the main opposition forces to seek to achieve politically and diplomatically what it appears unable to do militarily.

Not surprisingly, an acrimonious debate is unfolding between interventionists who believe that only force, or at least its threat, can thread the needle of hope. The interventionists, invoking the responsibility to protect a norm, effectively used to mobilise support in the Security Council to mandate a no fly zone in Libya back in 2011, suggest that such an approach should be used in 2014. Either to establish a no fly zone, open a corridor that will allow humanitarian aid to flow to besieged cities, or to achieve regime change in Syria as the only way to end the people’s ordeal.

The anti-interventionists point out that the Libyan precedent is tainted by the deliberate expansion of the humanitarian scope of a much wider campaign with the clear intent of regime change, which in fact ended with the capture and execution of Muammar Gaddafi. The anti-interventionist argue that introducing external military force almost always makes matters worse, more killing, more devastation, and no politically sustainable outcome.

Providing humanitarian relief in a situation free of internal political struggle should be sharply distinguished from the realities amid serious civil strife. The response to the Somali breakdown of governability during the presidency of George H. W. Bush in 1992, is illustrative of a seemingly pure humanitarian response to famine and disease. It was characterised by a posture of political non-interference and by the shipment of food and medical supplies to a people in desperate need.

This contrasted with the supposedly more muscular response to a troubled Somalia during the early stages of the Bill Clinton presidency in 1993 when the humanitarian mission became combined with anti-“warlord” and political reconstruction goals. Difficulties emerged as national armed resistance was encountered culminating in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in 18 deaths of American soldiers, prompting an almost immediate pullout from Somalia under a cloud of intense criticism of the intervention within the United States.

This had the unfortunate spillover effect of leading the supposedly liberal Clinton White House to discourage a prudent humanitarian response to the onset of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which might have saved hundreds of thousand of lives. In the Rwanda context, the US Government even discouraged a modest response by the United Nations that already had a peacekeeping presence in the country. It remains a terrible stain on America’s reputation as a humane and respected world leader.

The Syrian Reality

The Syrian reality since its inception was dominated by a political uprising, later an insurgency, directed at regime change. The humanitarian relief argument then to be credible, much less persuasive needs to deal with the complexities of Somalia 2, and not act as if the humanitarian response can be addressed in isolation from the political struggle as was the case in Somalia 1.

When political objectives become intertwined with a humanitarian rationale, forces of national resistance are activated on the assumption that the real goal of the mission is the political one, and the humanitarian relief is the cover.

As we can foresee, this complexity makes for a stiffer climb facing an advocate of humanitarian intervention in the current Syrian tragedy. There exists a more difficult burden of persuasion, but not an impossible one. Indeed, against the background of recent failed intervention, every proposed intervention confronts such a burden at some level.

In fact, the Syrian situation has an originality that makes the Somalia template clarifying, but hardly definitive. The Syrian political struggle is more acute and vicious than was the case in Somalia 2, but also the humanitarian crisis is deeper.

Also the plight of many Syrians, caught in the maelstrom of this horrifying war that is both internal and contains regional proxy elements, is more confusing as to the probable effects of threats and uses of force on behalf of genuine humanitarian goals.

There is also a misleading character associated with those contentions that direct their blame at Russia and express disappointment about the UN’s low profile response. To join the debate in a useful way, it is also important to consider the Libyan background when a humanitarian debate in the Security Council was employed to win support for a mandate to use force. It was immediately invested with a political mission associated with regime change. Why should Russia or China rely on the claims of the interventionists that their intentions are limited to humanitarian goals this time around? And clearly among the interventionists are those whose primary interest is to rid Syria of the Assad menace.

Policy Dilemma

My basic contention is that there are no easy answers at this stage as to what should be done about the Syrian situation, and the dogmatic discourse for or against intervention misses the deeply tragic nature of the policy dilemma for all political actors.

I would feel more comfortable about the intervention debate if it were expressed in a discourse that accords prominence to the virtue of humility. Too much is unknowable to have any confidence that a clear line of advocacy will be historically vindicated.

For me the fundamental question is what is best to do in such a desperate situation of radical uncertainty. It is not only that the interventionists, and perhaps the anti-interventionists are motivated by a convergence of humanitarian/moral considerations with geostrategic ambitions, but that the nature of these hidden calculations are discussed in governmental circles behind locked doors and written down in secret policy memoranda.

And so until we address these questions of consequences and secret goals in the context of uncertainty and unknowability, the public discourse on what to do about Syria offers limited insight into the policy options being endorsed by policymakers and leaders. I hope that such a discussion will ensue, and replace the rather pointless and dogmatic self-righteous indignation of both interventionists and anti-interventionists.

– Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies.He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. (This article was first published in Al Jazeera –

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1 Comment

  1. Well written, but is not the main problem that there already has been massive intervention? The U.S. has intervened indirectly through its puppet Saudi regime, and more than likely indirectly through direct covert actions within Syria, not to mention its unilateral support of Israel and its occupation of the Golan Heights and attacks on Syria.

    Most of these problems would not exist if the powers that be did not intervene in the first place. Those initial interventions appear to create the chaos and disorder from which they then openly advocate for direct open intervention. Such is the history of U.S. foreign policy over that past many decades.

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