In my last post, I spoke about the relationship between R2P and Humanitarian Intervention. This post takes a look at Syria and evaluates the prospect of intervention.
Traditional international law restricts arbitrary conduct of states in their relations with each other. States are expected to respect the sovereign rights of other states by ensuring that they do not violate their independence by interfering with it – both in terms of territorial integrity and in political independence. This sovereign power of a state implies its ability to determine its stand with respect to its internal affairs, and its external affairs. The respect for sovereignty of every state in international relations, in an ideal setting, hopes for anarchy – everyone is an equal. Within the international domain, sovereignty implies that a state can do anything, but subject to the fact that it must respect and not violate the sovereignty of others. Sovereignty in the internal context implies that a state can do anything it wishes within its domestic domain, without anyone hindering its actions.
This latter dimension to sovereignty is easily a hot favourite, especially among despotic governments that enjoy the right to wield power over its people. They can oppress, and none can question. They can abuse, and none can question. They can violate, and none can question. No external power can intervene.
Were actual International Relations transpiring in a vacuum, the above would transpire without restrictions. But, in reality, that absolution does not exist. Non-intervention as a principle is both impossible and non-existent. The need to interact in one way or the other, the need to indulge in relations for trade, commerce and politics and the obligation to offer aid and help in the face of challenges have broken the watertight norms of non-intervention. In fact, non-intervention itself cannot exist – you may explicitly intervene and prohibit or facilitate, or implicitly intervene by doing nothing and allowing something to continue. It is as simple as saying that you remain complicit by silence.
Taking shape in the form of intervention that is justified on humanitarian grounds, the advent of state policies involving action in other states has carved a spot for itself in international practice. As Noam Chomsky noted, the first thing about humanitarian intervention is that it exists. Putting this in view with the fact that intervention exists in every form, it implies that a state that is not actively involved in “stopping” atrocities from happening, is being complicit with the occurrence of the atrocities themselves, by not doing anything to fight it.
In reality, though, that is not so. States do not intervene in every other state – questions of cost-benefit analyses, practicality and feasibility in terms of available infrastructure and resource-challenges to states, and the propensity for the loss of lives are spokes in their wheels. But this does not mean that a state is necessarily complicit in allowing a crime to unfold – for instance, the double intervention in Serbia under Clinton’s regime, while Rwanda was ignored – that doesn’t mean that Rwandan lives were less precious to the West, in comparison with Serbian lives. The motives underlying the choice to intervene or not to intervene in one or another state are plenty.
Typically, the humanitarian principles are often seen as the basis, the forerunner reason for the intervention itself. But, these are not the only considerations. How best a state will be served in terms of its national interests through the intervention and the extent of costs it will incur in tandem with the benefits that can accrue to it are major factors. No state is easily, completely giving in its ways, and nor can it expectably be thus. National interests are subjective to the leader of the nation, for it is in his line of sight that the future of the nation is considered.
Coming to a relevant case at hand, Syria, the Assad government has taken to the path of brutal violence in repressing the opposition movement. The conflict runs deeper than just a people versus government deal – with the government being a representative scion of Syria’s Alawite minority and the rebellious movements being based primarily on the Sunni majority. That the Assad regime has obviously failed to suppress the rebellion, and to prevent it from growing larger is a given. But, the rebellion is not nearing success just yet.
As much as the international community appears to be wringing its hands in despair at the crisis, Syria’s situation is not without the involvement of external actors. Iran is actively involved in offering the Assad regime advisers and other support. Russia has supplied arms, while China and Russia have fought resolutions authorizing humanitarian intervention. Saudi Arabia and Qatar actively support the rebellion in Syria, while Turkey and Jordan have provided sanctuary for the opposition. The Assad regime has been condemned aplenty – and rumours are rife of an Al-Qaeda support system for Syria. Syria’s state of affairs began unravelling nearly two years ago. But the West has not intervened – by choice. Mounting costs and results that don’t take place until months of effort, plenty of lives and money have gone into it are valid considerations – getting rid of Assad appears a tougher task than that of getting rid of Gaddhafi.
But who gets to decide which place is ripe for intervention and which place isn’t?