By Jeremy Goldman
As the revolutions of the Arab Spring progress, a principal question that stands before the international community is: when is intervention appropriate? Currently, the world is divided about the appropriate course of action regarding the Syrian government’s violent reaction to political dissidents. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently reminded the UN of their duty to stop such crimes against humanity, but throughout history, there have been many cases of such oppression that the United Nations did not stop. The UN did not intervene after the massacre at Tiananmen Square and did not even condemn the Indonesian killings of 1965. What differentiates this instance of government oppression from the others they allowed to pass?
To give some historical perspective on intervention: aggressive military actions meant to strengthen the invading state have often been fed to the public as “good for the people” in the invaded state. The British portrayed their colonization as “civilizing the native populations.” The Soviets claimed to be “liberating the peoples of Eastern Europe.” America claims to be “spreading democracy in Iraq.” The list goes on and on. States and their propaganda have a strategic reason to pretend their actions are taken in the name of humanity; it creates popular support. No intelligent state would act as if its actions are solely taken to increase its own power. They claim humanitarian reasons for their intervention.
Syria isn’t the only repressive government in its region. If NATO suddenly decided to commit itself to humanitarian ideals, for instance, there might be an American fleet off of the coast of Saudi Arabia; but Saudi Arabia exports its oil to America. There might also be some oversight of the newly empowered Libyan rebels, who were recently condemned by the African Union for “racist attacks,” according to the daily news source arabnews.com. NATO has not aggressively proposed any resolutions condemning the new Libyan government, as it has done in Syria.
A regime change in Syria could perhaps be quite beneficial for the US and its allies. In 1979, the US embargoed many Syrian exports, and Washington’s relationship with Damascus has been quite contentious ever since. At the moment, Syria and Iran are technically the only two countries in the Middle East that are not on friendly terms with America. Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan used to be a part of that group as well.
The NATO bombings in Libya serve as a prime example of the possible outcomes of intervention. Yes, Muammar Gaddafi was repressive, enforcing censorship and employing a secret police to monitor the public and arrest dissidents. However, supporters would note that Gaddafi executed several administrative and economic reforms, and by 2009, the CIA World Factbook reported that life expectancy in Libya was just one year less than that in the United States. Yet, these details are not frequently included in the national narrative.
The act of overthrowing Gaddafi led to vast destruction and the loss of innocent life, as towns uninvolved in the revolt were often bombed and rebels cut off water and supplies to areas under Gaddafi’s control. According to the World Health Organization, the death toll during the “humanitarian” revolt reached between 2,000 and 30,000. As described earlier, the new Libyan army does not show promise to act as a democratic or humanitarian force. Hence, the change in Libya was brought on at great human and economic cost, and Libyans’ economic woes remain unsolved. The New York Times reports that some government employees have gone a year without salaries. Still, US intervention has likely protected our economic interests there.
Can anything different be expected of intervention in Syria? Assad represents the same Arab-nationalist movement as Gaddafi, and his party, albeit repressive, instituted many of the same reforms in Syria that Gaddafi had instituted in Libya. Can the world community expect a less catastrophic outburst of violence if it chooses to attempt a regime change? The reasonable answer is no.
In line with historical precedent, the national medias of each state promulgate information that conforms to the worldview of their audiences. American media depicts the Free Syrian Army as hopeful but in need of foreign assistance by reporting on the casualties and destruction in Homs. The Russian media portrays the FSA as a tool of NATO imperialism by reporting on pro-Assad rallies and accusing the West of supplying weapons to the rebels. It is imperative that people do not rely solely on the mainstream media of one nation, for it is selective and supports its own nation’s agenda.
The Assad regime is reportedly killing people uninvolved in the battlefield. But he rebels are not entirely peaceful protesters either, and the Syrian government has reported over 1,000 casualties among its security forces, according to CNN. Not all Syrians are supportive of the rebels or the government. One recent poll conducted in Syria by The Doha Debates, a project of the Qatar Foundation, reveals that while most Syrians outside of the country want Assad to resign, 55% of Syrians in the country want Assad to stay, fearing collapse into civil war.
Essentially, a military intervention would not be a purely humanitarian venture; it could also be a means to promote NATO and US interests in the region. Many civilian deaths could result, and even more people might flee the country. Such a violent environment would not cultivate healthy democracy.
Other options are available: the UN could facilitate negotiations between the government and opposition groups. But a US military intervention, if conducted under the façade of humanitarian aid, could result in greater destruction and loss of life. Do Syrians really need another repressive NATO client for a government?