Dr Delacroix has recently left a question in the form of a comment that I think deserves to be answered. He asks:
If you were 100% convinced that Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons on civilians, would it affect your judgment about the desirability of American intervention in Syria?
Andrew shares his thoughts here. Rick Weber chimes in here (why isn’t he blogging with us, by the way?). I have written about Syria and military intervention here before, so I thought I’d just try to add a bit more clarity to the topic. First though, I think it is important to take a closer look at Dr Delacroix’s question.
In it, he seems to be assuming that I don’t think the American government should do anything in this case. Now, he is of course referring to military action in Syria – which I absolutely oppose – but it would be nice if Dr Delacroix employed less trickery in his questioning.
Instead of taking the usual tactic of trying to explain what I think the US could do (see Rick’s piece on this), or why I think another war in the Middle East would be a disaster, I’m going to take a different path altogether and offer a defense of both the Hussein regime and the Assad regime, thus rendering the US wars, or potential wars, in the region immoral and unjustified.
To put it bluntly: both regimes were perfectly justified in undertaking the actions that they did, and there was (is) no justification whatsoever for American military involvement.
Imperialists like to pretend that the Middle East is a simple place with simple people performing simple tasks and largely worshiping a simple religion (Islam). The results of applying imagination to the real world can be found first in the mandate system devised by British and French imperialists at the end of World War I. These two states really screwed up the region. They drew arbitrary borders that did not conform to any pattern whatsoever among the indigenous population (Dr Delacroix is fond of using Kurdish autonomy in Iraq as a justification for imperialism, but it was imperialism in the first place that left the Kurds without sovereignty).
Out of these arbitrary borders came the nation-states of the Middle East that we all know and love today. Prior to the entrenchment of these borders (borders which were later to be blessed by the United Nations) a number of political proposals put forth by the indigenous population itself were heard. One historian from UCLA has documented just how trusted the United States was in the region at one point in time:
[…] the elected parliament of Syria that met after the war, the Syrian General Congress, declared that it wanted Syria to be independent and unified. By unity, the representatives meant that Syria should include territories of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan. If Syria had to have a mandatory power overseeing it, a majority of the representatives declared, it should be the United States. (87)
It goes without saying that the democratically-elected Syrian General Congress – the one crushed by French imperialism – included representatives from Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan. The question of why the US has fallen so far from grace in the eyes of many Arabs (and other peoples around the world) is far beyond the scope of this post, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that the United States of America decided it wanted to step into the imperialist boots worn by France and Great Britain during the 19th century rather than pursue a policy of peace, commerce and friendship.
After the French crushed democracy in Syria (Britain did the same in Iraq), it began to carve up their mandates into smaller territories. The goal behind this policy was not to improve efficiency in government, but to create a system of government where religious minorities – specifically Christian minorities – would be able to control the levers of power.
After the French were kicked out of Syria (and the British in Iraq), sectarian violence began. The international legal order, as exemplified by the United Nations, played a lead role in deepening the crisis: by recognizing the legitimacy of these arbitrary states and the sanctity of their borders, the UN contributed directly to the bloodshed that occurred as rival factions sought power over the center of these states (think Washington DC). Because these states were legitimized by the UN, the rival factions could simply seize control of the center and automatically gain legitimacy from the very international order that had created this clusterfuck in the first place. In essence, the United Nations has simply served to further the imperial ends of the British and French in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
The stakes for contesting the center were very high. In Iraq, Arabs who were also Sunni Muslims or Christians, as well as other small religious and ethnic minorities, banded together to counter the violence directed at them by Sunni Kurds and Shia Arabs.
In Syria, Arabs who were also Shia Muslims or Christians, as well as other small religious and ethnic minorities (such as the Kurds or the Alawites), banded together to counter the violence directed at them by Sunni Arabs.
When the dictators of Iraq and Syria murdered thousands of people within the borders created and sanctified by the international system, they did not do so because they viewed some of their fellow citizens – Syrians and Iraqis – as refusing to obey orders. Hussein and the Assads murdered droves of people because they viewed these people as enemies and threats to their own survival (as well as to the survival of their kin and allies) rather than as fellow citizens.
I am not justifying the violence perpetrated by the minority regimes of Iraq and Syria, I am only putting their tactics into context. Without the repressive measures that these regimes had at their disposal, the ethnic and religious minorities that these regimes protected would have been slaughtered just as callously as those who were actually slaughtered.
Here is where the immorality of American foreign policy comes into play. Here also is where the immorality of imperialism comes into play. But I repeat myself.
Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for 24 years. Bearing in mind the situation that Iraqis were presented with as a result of British imperialism (outlined above), it is estimated that his regime killed 250,000 Iraqis. That’s pretty bad.
It took the unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US military about a third of the time (nine years) to reach just under half the total body count of the Hussein regime (roughly 110,000 dead Iraqis).
If the US military had stayed as long as Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, and trends continued to remain steady (and there are no signs to suggest that they wouldn’t have), then the US military would have been responsible for more Iraqi deaths than the Hussein regime. The great, disgusting irony of it all is that the Hussein regime was at least defending a significant minority of the population. The US has left the minorities of Iraq in the hands of the dominant Shia majority (Dr Delacroix’s precious democracy).
The same situation is currently in place in Syria. The Assad regime is basically fighting against al-Qaeda and Hizbollah. The Assad regime is also the only thing stands between significant minority populations and the large Arab Sunni majority of Syria, a majority that has been violently kept out of the center since Assad’s father seized power over Syria’s center in 1970. If the US were to intervene on behalf of al-Qaeda and Hizbollah, what do you think the outcome would be?
Less bloodshed? Less cronyism?
These are fantasies. The states created and sanctified by imperial decree (British, French and UN) are by their very nature destined to be cradles of autocracy.
The best policy that the United States could pursue in regards to the Syrian question, and in regards to most post-colonial states, is to simply stop recognizing these polities as legitimate. The rest of the West would follow suite. This would relieve the pressure associated with seizing the center of these states and force the people of the Middle East to compromise. The United States should not recognize any government in the Middle East until a delegation of representatives – like the one in the interwar years – is sent to Washington, by the people of the Middle East, to argue their case for sovereignty and induction into the liberal international order.
In a world of second bests, it would be wise to eliminate all sanctions on the Syrian state, including weapons sanctions. This would have the effect of leveling the playing field (states often enjoy an advantage in weaponry once sanctions are imposed upon a warring area because a state’s resources are likely to crowd out smaller competitors [i.e. “the rebels”] in the black market). The usual diplomatic caveats apply as well.
Assuming, as Dr Delacroix does, that military intervention would do the Syrian people any good is as preposterous as it is condescending.
I would need some hard data to challenge my intuition (outlined above) on this matter.