by Interviewee: Vijay Prashad Interviewer: Qalandar Bux Memon
Q – Looked at as a doctrine what are you views on ‘humanitarian intervention’? Is it a sound and workable concept and can and should it apply in the case of Syria?
V: The doctrine of humanitarian intervention developed among North Atlantic liberals in the 1990s as part of the elaboration of the “just war” doctrine. The “just war” ideas go back to medieval Christendom, to the writings of Augustine and Aquinas, as well as to the era of the Teutonic Knights and the Crusades. As the knights left their homes to liberate the Holy Land, they stitched two pieces of red cloth to their garments – the sign of the Cross; but was this sufficient license to make war, to kill and maim? Which human could kill in the name of god? Later, during Europe’s internecine wars, the eminent jurist Hugo Grotius wondered about this same problem – by what formula could Christians kill? He developed three principles: self-defense, reparation of injury and punishment. That is the pre-history. Other traditions had their own debates, but those did not influence the theory of humanitarian intervention which does look back self-consciously to this Christian lineage.
In the 1990s, Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars, second edition 1992) and Michael Ignatieff (The Rights Revolution, Massey Lectures, 2000) returned to these themes in light of the “humanitarian intervention” in Yugoslavia and the lack thereof in Rwanda. In an important letter from May 1999, Ignatieff wrote that armed intervention could be justified in two instances: “when human rights abuses rise to the level of a systematic attempt to expel or exterminate large numbers of people who have no means of defending themselves” and “when these abuses threaten the peace and security of neighboring states.” All diplomacy has to be exhausted and force can only be used if it has a “real chance of working.” These four criteria (genocidal violence, regional chaos, no more diplomatic avenues and efficacy of armed intervention) became the bedrock of the discussions around humanitarian intervention, which led in 2005 to the UN adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.
On the surface, R2P is a perfectly commonsensical idea – if people are being slaughtered and there is no alternative for that but some kind of armed force that violates the principle of state sovereignty, then who is to argue against that? No human being would stand by to watch others slaughtered if there was a chance that their actions can help them. Which is why the fourth principle in Ignatieff’s list is so essential – that the armed intervention be efficacious. This means it has to be proportional and able to predict, within reason, that it can end the extermination or displacement that is occurring.
The problem with R2P is less with its principles than with its implementation. Who gets to determine that the abuses have risen to the level of extermination or expulsion? Who will determine that the neighbors are in danger? Who will say that diplomacy has been exhausted or that the force can work? The discussions around R2P placed the onus on the UN Security Council. The politics of the event would be central to the use of R2P. The balance of veto power in the UNSC between the North Atlantic bloc (US, UK, France) and the emergent BRICS bloc (Russia and China) would determine the outcome if R2P could be invoked. In Libya, during discussion on UNSC Resolution 1973, the BRICS bloc decided to abstain, allowing the Arab League and NATO the space to create a no-fly zone. NATO far exceeded the mandate of 1973, which shocked the BRICS states (and even the Arab League). They are therefore chary of allowing a resolution to go through the UNSC that would allow military force (under Chapter VII of the UN Charter). That of all “member states” the US (with its NATO alliance) is the only one capable of the kind of full spectrum armed force suggests that any resolution would empower the US. This means that US national interests could determine the universal good. Such a blank check, to allow US national interests to determine international policy, worries other powers.
It is unlikely that the UNSC would be able to pass a Chapter VII resolution on Syria for several reasons. First, the Libyan shadow hangs heavily on Syria. Second, it is not clear that an armed intervention would help the conflict. US planned to strike with Tomahawk missiles, which have “limited tactical efficacy,” according to the US military. They would punish Assad for an alleged chemical weapon strike, but not significantly change the equation (in his September 10 speech Obama said, “I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force”). In other words, the US is unsure that R2P operates in Syria – there is no urgency to use force to stop the Assad regime, and there is absolutely no will to remove his government from power. R2P does not sanction a country’s self-righteousness. It is intended to help people on the ground. There is no evidence that a bombing run by the US will change the situation for the refugees and the Syrians in general. In which case it is not a good concept for the Syrian catastrophe.
Q – There is a great deal of confusion around the conflict in Syria. What is at stake for the different parties involved, in particular those in the region?
No question that when the uprising broke out in 2011 it represented a mass upsurge against the undemocratic regime in Damascus. The first demand in March was for Assad to sack the governor of Dara’a, a governorate where the crackdown was brutal. Assad did not act on this quickly enough. He was obdurate. When he did fire them in July things had progressed beyond that. The situation was now out of his control with tens of thousands of people on the streets from Hama to Homs and in sections of Damascus. If he had opened up a political process, the situation would not have so quickly deteriorated into the carnage that stalks the country. The deterioration also allowed regional actors to insinuate themselves into the process, funding their preferred groups and even sending in their people to take part in the violence. In the early stage this was a process funded and pushed by the Gulf Arabs, who saw an opportunity and took it – to the detriment of both the Syrian rebellion and of Syria itself.
There are several reasons why Syria will not mimic Libya: the US and the Global North in general are wedded to Israel’s narrative, which is to weaken Syria which is the pipeline for logistical re-supply of Israel’s greatest foe, Hezbollah. Israel, therefore, opposes the Assad regime. Tel Aviv’s political elites saw that by 2012 the main thrust of the opposition would lean toward some kind of Islamism. When the Brotherhood took power in Cairo, Tel Aviv felt threatened. The Syrian Brotherhood is more radical than the Egyptian variety, and its nexus with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), terrify the Israeli establishment. Tel Aviv sees Assad as an effective border guard, which he has been.
The general strategic orientation of the Global North and Israel is to weaken Syria but not allow the Assad regime to collapse and open the gates of Damascus to Israel’s enemies. So Israel and the Global North seem more committed to a policy to weaken Syria than to help the Syrian people.
Hezbollah is not programmatically linked to the Assad regime. Indeed, it has problems with Damascus on many issues. But it has a pragmatic need to maintain its logistical line through Syria and Iraq into Iran, one of its main suppliers. This is essential for Hezbollah’s single minded focus – to resist the Israeli threat and to maintain Lebanon’s sovereignty. That is the reason that Hezbollah has been drawn into the conflict, not because of any fealty to Assad but because of its own agenda. It would be catastrophic for Lebanon and the region if Hezbollah would be weakened by the Syrian civil war. That is something that all sides in Lebanese politics seem aware of, and so does Israel.
Having check mated the Qataris out of the Arab Winter, the Saudis are now in the saddle, throwing money at their preferred interlocutors, mainly of the more radical Islamist bent. Saudis love to export their own problems, and this is one way to do it. They believe that they can ride the tiger of radical Islamism, an illusion given the blowback from Afghanistan that still rattles the palace. But the Saudis are the main pole of the counter-revolution in the Arab world, and this is their tried and true method for a forward policy – to finance and support radical Islamists who will provide them with leverage against another Arab state. Prince Bandar’s close links to the US (having spent 20 years as Saudi ambassador to Washington) is useful for the Global North. He is the man who is coordinating activities with the Syrian rebels, who have been trying their very best to shrug off the image of being overrun by the radical Islamists. The new head of the Syrian rebel’s political coalition, Ahmad Toameh, has been touted as a “moderate” to ally the fears of those who see an Afghanistan being created in Syria under Saudi and US auspices.
What is at stake for the regional partners is a massive refugee crisis – 7 million Syrians are displaced, many of them having moved to their neighbors. Instability in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon continues to be a byproduct of Syrian war and its expansion into its neighborhood. The Jordanian monarchy is on tenterhooks, worried that it might collapse; Lebanon is on the verge of something dramatic; Iraq has already slid into the carnage, with thousands dead this year in sectarian bombings and gunfire. This is all very worrying. Untold suffering is already the cross borne by the Syrians, and its export will draw in its neighbors into its vortex.
Q- You have written on the role of Gulf Cooperation Council and its role in the invasion of Libya. Can you brief us on its formation and its methods of funding and operations and what role is it playing in Syria?
The GCC was formed in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. The Gulf Arab states worried that their monarchies would be threatened by the overthrow of the Shah and the emergence of a new era of republicanism in the region. They had held off against the threats from Nasserism. This was the second flush. It was not an idle threat. A group led by al-Otaybi, a not inconsiderable man, took over the al-Masjid al-Haram saying that the Saudi royals had lost their way. The impact of the Iranian revolution cannot be underestimated. So the various monarchs created the GCC as a shield against what they considered to be Iranian influence, and an Iranian threat. Iran has never threatened a military attack on the royals. What they feared was rather Iranian influence amongst a population eager for a more democratic present. The GCC pushed a sectarian agenda, arguing that when democratic urges rose up in Bahrain and the KSA, this was the Shia who were being egged on by Iran against the Sunni rulers. It is true that the working-class in eastern Saudi and in Bahrain are largely Shia, and that they are often organized into religious-oriented groups, but it was a measure of opportunism for the royals to cast their entire uprising as sectarian. This sectarianism drove the GCC states to essentially hire out Saddam’s Iraq to begin its bloody and painful war against Iran that ran from 1980 to 1988 – and it was their failure to pay up that earned them an invasion into Kuwait in 1990, the move that brought in US military power at a scale unknown till then. It was this push to color local protests against the sectarian royals as sectarian (the fruit of Shiism) and to color geopolitical events as sectarian that earned the GCC states some favor in the Global North, where the allergy against Iran had grown to a fever pitch.
The GCC took concerted action when the rebellion broke out in Bahrain in 2011. Its troops crossed the causeway that divides Bahrain from KSA and cracked down on the protestors. There has still not been an accounting of the violence that was meted out to the ordinary protestors. But in Syria, the GCC has not been acting as a bloc. One reason is that a contradiction opened up between Qatar and the KSA – the former the emir of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied tendencies, and the latter the emir of far more radical Salafi tendencies (such as al-Nour in Egypt and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria). As Qatar and the KSA had this contradiction between them, the GCC was not able to move a common agenda in Syria or in Egypt. But the GCC has tried to work together to use the Arab League on Syria (they failed recently when Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon blocked a Gulf Arab proposal to back the US strike on Assad).
Q – Can you suggest a way out of the conflict that will work to the benefit of the Syrian people?
Over the course of the past few months, Obama and his team have tried to frame the question of intervention as either we bomb or we do nothing. The choices are restricted. The evangelical doctrine of humanitarian intervention that is driven by Samantha Power and Susan Rice goes in this direction. If you go back and look at the criterion that is there in Ignatieff then you have to pause – morality, not evangelicalism, demands a much broader look. Has diplomacy been exhausted? Are there no other avenues to act?
The Global North has indeed failed. But not in terms of bombing. It has failed to provide sufficient resources for the refugee crisis, now with 7 million displaced Syrians. The US has taken in only 33 Syrian refugees, a miniscule number highlighted by the self-righteous language of its president. The US and its allies have provided only pennies to the dollar of what they have pledged for the UN agencies who are hard at work on the refugee question.
On the diplomacy front, the US and Russia have played a game that has sought over and over to undermine regional initiatives. Last year, four unlikely regional powers (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) created the Syria Contact Group, Before they could get to work to provide the kind of political assistance that the UN’s envoy at the time Kofi Annan needed, the US and Russia sidelined it. The US and Russia wanted only a bilateral meeting in Madrid where they would determine the focus of the deal on Syria. That is preposterous. It meant that the regional partners could not involve themselves to put material pressure on all sides of the Syrian conflict. But such regional embers are not put out. They remain. Here are at least three possibilities that need more scrutiny:
(1) Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan are weighted down by the refugee crisis. A Regional Syrian Refugee Crisis would allow these countries to create a common platform to deal with the humanitarian relief problems that bedevil them all. Recognizing the need for coordination, the UN has appointed Nigel Fisher as the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator. Now Fisher and the four regional countries need to create a modus vivendi to deal with the severe crisis for each of these countries. But Fisher’s ambit is largely going to be on relief. A four country conference would allow these countries to move from coordination around relief to a consideration of the political root of the refugee crisis.
(2) Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt and Iraq voted against the Gulf Arab proposal at the Arab League meeting on giving backing to the US strike. These countries need to now push for a regional solution based on their refusal to allow an armed strike. Pressure needs to come on them to involve themselves as a bloc to push the Assad regime and the rebels to recognize that there is no path for either toward total victory. Negotiation is the only way.
(3) Iran has a new leadership, which has reached out to its immediate neighbors seeking a new foundation for relations. The new head of government Hasan Rouhani has said that Iran would welcome any elected Syrian leader. This can, of course, mean anything – after all Bashar Assad is technically an elected leader. But it indicates that there is a sense in Iran that the legitimacy of Assad is deeply compromised and that if there were another election he might not want to put himself forward for the sake of Syria. This is a productive gesture, and it could mean an Iranian feint to save Syria from destruction.
It is true that neither side in this war is willing to properly negotiate. That is why UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been so negative of late. But these regional powers can squeeze the supply lines for both sides, put pressure on the regime and the rebels for the sake of Syria to consider giving Geneva 2 a genuine try. If these regional powers, all of whom don’t agree with each other on how to understand the Syrian war, are able to form some common minimum approach to end the carnage and disruption, it will be for the better.
Diplomacy has not been exhausted. No regional approach has been permitted to get off the ground. This has to be the focus of energy.
Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University in Beirut. His most recent books are The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and (co-edited with Paul Amar) Dispatches from the Arab Spring (Minnesota, 2013).
Qalandar Bux Memon is the Editor of Naked Punch.