Thursday, 31 May 2012

Syria: International paralysis

The more the international community speaks out, the more impotent they sound. Words of condemnation become even stronger words of condemnation: we ‘deplore’, ‘are outraged’ ‘sickened,’ ‘horrified’ by events in Syria. Sanctions are ratcheted up with no desirable effect. Diplomats and ambassadors are expelled, surprising those who wondered why they were still in post in the first place.

There’s nothing reassuring about the world’s response to the massacre being waged by Syria’s President Assad against his own people. With one Arab Spring intervention behind, the West is loathed to take action again. And yet, whilst we intervened to prevent Colonel Gaddafi slaughtering the people of Benghazi, we won’t prevent Assad’s actual slaughter of the people of Homs and other areas.
Let me declare my hand and say that I wasn’t a supporter of the military response in Libya. Not because I didn’t want to see a tyrant ousted from power, but because I worried desperately that we were going to get embroiled in something we had little understanding of, exacerbating the death toll, with no idea what would come next once we helped the opposition take over.

The picture since Gaddafi’s overthrow has been mixed. All those who naively thought the Arab uprisings would give way to the blooming of secular democracies have been sorely disappointed. This is not to say that Libya isn’t better off without Gaddafi, but that the situation there is delicate to say the least.
Post war reprisals against supposed Gaddafi sympathisers – many of them black Africans – have marred some of the good will towards the rebels. Highly disturbing images and videos (warning: this link contains an extremely shocking video clip) have come out of torture and beatings, with revenge still on the minds of many rebels. One human rights activist from the town of Misrata says:

“...the brutal methods employed by former rebels are no different than that displayed by Gaddafi’s soldiers.”
Human Rights Watch has warned that legislation recently passed in the country threatens to criminalize freedom of speech:

“It will restrict free speech, stifle dissent, and undermine the principles on which the Libyan revolution was based.”
NATO has been accused of a dereliction of duty in not bothering to count the dead after its intervention. Casualty figures before and after have been virtually impossible to verify.

For Assad in Syria, it’s very much a case of like father like son. Emulating his father who, 30 years ago, crushed a rebellion, leaving anything from 10,000 to 40,000 people dead, depending on which source you consult. Today, the death toll in Syria stands at around 15,000, but again this figure is hard to corroborate.
So, why only words and no action? In Libya, it was Britain and France at the forefront of the action, with America taking a lesser role, happy to let it be seen as a predominantly European intervention. The situation in Libya was far more straight forward, in terms of what needed to be done. Syria presents many complex and unknown challenges. The UN Security Council is currently hamstrung by the refusal of Russia or China to isolate Assad. Whilst he retains their tacit support, because that’s what it is, he’s going nowhere.

As is always the case, the UN is only as effective as the sum of its parts; an easy target for some, notably the liberal interventionists, but the wrong target. Although it certainly didn’t help itself when UN monitors in the country coincided with an upsurge in violence, rather than their hopes of trying to quell it.
America will issue its powerfully worded statements, but there’s no way President Obama wants to get bogged down in another conflict on Muslim terrain. Not five months before a general election. The fortunes of the US economy is very much priority number one right now.

France’s newly elected President Hollande, as well as Germany’s Angela Merkel, are too pre-occupied with trying to stop the implosion of the Euro and its member states to devote their energies to anything else. Besides, Germany failed to lend its backing to the Libyan mission. Which leaves Britain, where there appears little appetite for action, with David Cameron no doubt briefed that any intervention could last far longer than Libya, which itself lasted longer than many predicted.
Syria’s rebels are therefore left with no more than the sounds of a disapproving, but seemingly toothless, international community ringing in their ears, knowing that words will do nothing to dampen the violence. President Assad knows this too, which is why the killings will go on and on.

This article was first published on Speaker's Chair on Thursday 31 May 2012

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