CANBERRA – A terrible tragedy is unfolding in (fill in the name of your favorite trouble spot). Something must be done. This (choose from sending troops, air strikes, enforcing a no fly zone, arming rebels) is something. Therefore it must be done.
Such is what passes for much of policy advice by some analysts, many unembarrassed by their dismal record on Iraq 10 years ago. The latest trouble spot of choice for their penetrating insights is Syria. And the latest development to have heightened their excitability is claims of chemical weapons — sarin, a banned nerve gas — having been used there.
Two sensible pieces of policy advice for dealing with violent conflicts in that region: (1) If you understand the problem, you have been misinformed; (2) If you are confronted with a series of exclamation marks, substitute each with several question marks.
The Syrians have used chemical weapons! They have crossed our red line! We must join the fight!
Who is alleging the use of chemical weapons by whom? Each side accuses the other. How independent, credible and reliable are the sources and the evidence? Not definitive enough to jump to conclusions. Sarin seems to have been used, but we do not know how, when and by whom. The time-lag and long communications chain in getting soil and biological samples to Western scientists increase their vulnerability to being tainted and challenged on authenticity.
On May 6, Carla Del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney general and war crimes prosecutor at The Hague and one of the lead U.N. investigators into the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, said that according to reports she had seen, “there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas … on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.” But the use of chemical weapons by government forces could not be ruled out.
The independent International Commission of Inquiry, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in August 2011, immediately distanced itself from her remarks, clarifying in a press release that it had reached no definitive conclusions on the use of chemical weapons by any of the conflict parties in Syria. In other words, the situation is so confusing and fluid that even members of the U.N. inquiry team are speaking at cross-purposes. On the same day, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich expressed deep concern that world public opinion was “being prepared for possible military intervention” in Syria.
There’s the rub. Both sides are engaged in a vicious propaganda war. It is worth remembering that after the Iraq fiasco in 2003, the Western media’s credibility among others is zero in assessing weapons of mass destruction claims. Not to mention Israel’s nuclear arsenal — the real WMD — as the elephant in the Middle East’s WMD room and how it dents Western governments’ credibility.
Declaring the use of chemical weapons to be a critical red line sent a warning to the Assad regime. But it also sent a signal to the rebels that they could maneuver the West into joining the fray on their side by provoking the regime into using such weapons or manipulate the evidence to suggest this has been done. Thus those already pushing for U.S. involvement have exploited the use of sarin as a selling point in the internal Washington debate, just as WMD was a marketing gimmick against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Who are the rebels? What is their agenda? What would be their policies if in government? How dominant are the Islamist fighters? How many are foreigners? How much of a blow back should Western countries, including Australia, expect from battle-hardened jihadists when they return “home” from Syria? By intervening, are we going to deliver Syria to al-Qaida just as the U.S. delivered Iraq to Iran? Are we falling into the trap of moral relativism in ignoring terrorist outrages against Western-unfriendly regimes that we despise?
What of the fate of the non-Sunni populations in Syria if a hardline Islamist regime takes power — the Alawites, Druze and Christians? Can we be confident that horrific atrocities will not be committed on them? If we break Syria as a functioning state, will we not own the murderous anarchy that ensues?
As U.S. statesman Henry Kissinger supposedly said of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), it’s a pity both sides can’t lose. Faced with wars of choice, we would do well to heed Oliver Cromwell’s famous appeal to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the mid-17th century: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
The divine right of kings to rule over subjects did not give way to the divine right of Westerners to choose other people’s regimes for them. Better to be taunted for doing nothing, than to be hated and despised as invaders and conquerors for “liberating” ingrates from despots.
Question marks help to bring nuance to policy analyses and choices. U.S. President George W. Bush famously warned against being nuanced to death. Look where the preference for simplistic analyses and solutions got him in Iraq.
The American people understand the need for caution. In a recent poll, only 15 to 25 percent believed North Korean and Syrian crises require immediate U.S. action, against 56 to 62 percent who said the United States has no responsibility to act.
There is no humanitarian crisis so grave that it cannot be made worse by military intervention. “We must do something” is a slogan, not a policy. Good intentions are no guarantee of good policy nor of good outcomes when meddling in foreign lands. The one guaranteed result of Western intervention would be to intensify the civil war and multiply the killings. Only a political solution in which all sides have a stake in the new Syrian order will reduce atrocities and provide the basis for social and political stability.
Ramesh Thakur, professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy.”