International support for some kind of military intervention in Syria has been building since last week’s chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus.
This support appears to be solidifying in Canada as well. For months, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been insisting that his government “believes the only way to halt the bloodshed in Syria is through a political solution,” a belief that MCC has affirmed.
However, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke by phone with U.S. President Barack Obama, and agreed that recent events demand “a firm response from the international community in an effective and timely manner.” On Wednesday afternoon, following a meeting with the President of the Syrian National Council in Montreal, Minister Baird indicated that it was unlikely that Canadian Forces would have a role to play in that response. Nonetheless, he affirmed that Canada is “of one mind” with its allies.
In light of this growing willingness to intervene militarily, MCC released “A call to end the violence in Syria.” Compelled to speak by the fears of our Syrian partners, this statement condemned “in the strongest terms all forms of violence and war,” and called for an escalation of humanitarian assistance and diplomatic efforts to negotiate “an inclusive political solution to the crisis.”
To be clear then, we do not agree with those who assume that rejecting armed intervention means there is nothing that can be done about the crisis in Syria. At the same time, we have no illusions that aid and diplomacy will be quick and easy.
Indeed, any intervention is bound to be inadequate in the face of a tragedy that has, to date, resulted in over 100,000 lives lost, created almost 2 million refugees, and displaced almost 5 million more people within their own country.
One might think then that MCC would be glad for the eagerness of world leaders to condemn violence in Syria. For example, Minister Baird was “incredibly outraged” by the recent use of chemical weapons, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack a “moral obscenity.”
Upon closer examination, however, I think there is plenty of cause for concern with this rhetoric.
I am unsettled, for example, by the way that violence in Syria is often condemned in a conditional way. Why are statements by world leaders or media pundits so preoccupied with making distinctions between different types of violence?
I certainly don’t want to minimize the horrors of chemical or other “weapons of mass destruction.” As was pointed out by many earlier this year when Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster munitions by the Assad regime, the willingness to use technologies of war that the international community has sought to ban is clearly a troubling sign. However, I am troubled by the willingness of all sides in the Syrian conflict to employ violence to achieve their goals, regardless of their tactics. The moral obscenity of war in Syria has been going on for years now.
Perhaps there is some reluctance among the world’s leaders to condemn violence categorically because the whole point of their rhetoric is to create space for another kind of violence? Is the point to justify their own—presumably legitimate, necessary, or even honourable—military action?
I have also been struck by the slipperiness of the international community’s rationale for violent intervention. On the one hand, we have repeatedly been reminded that the Syrian regime is committing acts of violence “against its own people.” As a result, words such as “cowardly,” “crazy,” and “delusional” have been used to characterize Syrian President Bashar al Assad. How often have you heard that phrase or those words mentioned in news reports on Syria, just as they were with Libya and Iraq in years past?
In recent days, however, armed intervention is increasingly being framed as a necessary response to an offense that the Assad regime has committed against the international community. It is now a matter of international (and national) security rather than a transgression against the Syrian people.
The origins of this latest rationale can be traced to President Obama’s declaration one year ago that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line.” And it now seems that Assad’s greatest sin is that he had the nerve to cross that line.
President Obama has insisted that “when countries break international norms” they have to be “held accountable.” Prime Minister Harper has expressed worries about “the risks of the international community not acting,” as this would set “an extremely dangerous precedent.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague has argued that “we cannot in the 21st century allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity.” And German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the “large-scale use of poison gas breaks a taboo.”
It seems then that the fundamental problem that the nations of the world are being mobilized to address is not violence per se, or even a particular kind of violence, but a regime that refuses to use violence in acceptable ways. The concern is not just punishing the Assad regime, but regimes everywhere that refuse to play by the rules.
Is this a compelling enough justification to put more lives at risk through more violence? Will this kind of intervention be able to meet the needs of Syrians in the near and long term?
By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director