Linky Uncertainty: Syria

My own thinking on the civil war in Syria and the possibility of Western intervention is rather muddled. On the one hand, it seems clear that there is a moral imperative to protect people – especially civilians and aid workers – in some way, even if meeting that imperative through military action is almost certainly a failure of the human imagination. On the other hand, it seems like little good can come out of Western military action in Syria.

That said, here are some links to others. I’ll add more as I find them.

Jonathan Bernstein: On Syria

Added: August 31, 2013

[There's not really a good quote to pull for this article. Go read the whole (short) thing.]

Charli Carpenter: Responsibility to Protect – Or to Punish: Morality and the Intervention in Syria

Added: August 31, 2013

Despite diplomatic rhetoric, the goal of upholding the chemical weapons taboo is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians. It has more to do with protecting a set of shared international understandings about the proper conduct of warfare. If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago: bombs and guns have killed far more civilians, at least as horribly, as last week’s gas attack.


It is a matter of argument whether that is the case here. Smart people have made the case for and against military intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds. But the question of whether intervention — at this time, in this way, for this reason — will protect civilians in Syria is a very different question than whether punishment for violating the chemical weapons taboo is warranted. Since each policy goal suggests a different type of intervention, Western powers shouldn’t try to have it both ways.

Chuck Currie: Lines Must Be Drawn In Syria

Added: August 31, 2013

War is contrary to the will of God. That is a foundational belief of mine. Any time force is used it must be seen as a failure of the human imagination to develop the just peace needed to free the world from on-going conflicts.

Nevertheless, there are times when the international community has a responsibility to protect civilian lives. We must never allow genocide to occur (though we have). And we must never allow the use of weapons of mass destruction to be used against civilian populations (but, again, we have). Each time these evils are allowed to occur it gives future governments license to replicate the crimes. Lines must be drawn.

Max Fisher: 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

Added: August 31, 2013

The United States and allies are preparing for a possibly imminent series of limited military strikes against Syria, the first direct U.S. intervention in the two-year civil war, in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.

If you found the above sentence kind of confusing, or aren’t exactly sure why Syria is fighting a civil war, or even where Syria is located, then this is the article for you. What’s happening in Syria is really important, but it can also be confusing and difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it.

Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: Syria and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

John Holmes: Does the UN’s Responsibility to Protect necessitate an intervention in Syria? This UN doctrine can justify military action where citizens need protection – but it does not provide a practical guide

Added: August 31, 2013

Nevertheless the overall consequences for civilians need to be factored into the decision making, in the context of the current massive humanitarian disaster: more than 2 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, and millions more inside Syria are desperately in need. However supposedly surgical the strikes, significant numbers of civilians are likely to be killed.

Moreover, humanitarian aid operations will certainly be disrupted, in both government and rebel-held areas, and may even be damaged permanently. I saw for myself how relief activities in Iraq and Afghanistan never recovered after the interventions there, as many of them became not only too dangerous but also ineffective because of local attitudes.

More people may die as a result. The impact on the course of the civil war itself, and its consequences for civilians, are hard to predict, and may not be positive. For now, the best thing outsiders can do to improve the humanitarian situation is to make sure the aid agencies have the resources and access they desperately need.

Alex Seitz-Wald: Why the Left is Split on Syria

Added: September 2, 2013

Private conversations with progressive activists and operatives reveal liberals are pulled between three desires: 1) There are the “liberal interventionists,” who want to strengthen international human rights and non-proliferation norms and try to stop the suffering; 2) There’s an anti-war camp, which wants to avoid another violent foreign entanglement; and 3) There’s a desire from some to support the president, who has staked his reputation at home and abroad on a vote to authorize the use of force.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: Syria and the ‘Moral Obscenity’ of War

Added: August 31, 2013

It is totally understandable that people around the world, horrified as they are by the widespread and horrible deaths of Syrian civilians, would want to “punish” the perpetrators.  But for the last two years, a horrific civil war has raged in Syria and it has taken the lives of more than 100,000 people, according to United Nations experts. Millions more have become refugees, suffering themselves in camps that are undersupplied.

One hundred thousand deaths is an obscenity. Millions of suffering refugees is an obscenity. The point is, war is a moral obscenity itself.  It is this war that must be stopped, and bombing campaigns do not end war. Peace negotiations end war.

What has to happen is to bring about an end to the violence.  Military intervention at this point may make even the slim chances of a second Geneva peace conference aimed at finding a political settlement in Syria, a follow-up to the June 2012 foreign ministers’ conference, even less likely.

But a political settlement is what has to happen.  The war has to end, and bombing will not accomplish that.

Jon Western: Not All Interventions are the Same

Added: August 31, 2013

Of course, there is plenty of risk and uncertainty in all of this. What happens if an initial strike does not deter the future use of chemical weapons? What happens if it doesn’t move the warring factions to the negotiating tables? Could the administration refrain from escalation if its use of force does not achieve these objectives? What kind of viable mechanism could be developed or implemented to stabilize an agreement — even if one could be reached? How to cope with various spoilers to the process that are almost certainly going to challenge any process? The administration would do well to actively deliberate all of these contingencies now rather than wait and be surprised — as happened to the Bush administration on Iraq.

International politics rarely gives policymakers clear answers to any of these questions and all of us would do well to remember that all of our analyses are probablistic. The challenge for decisionmakers is that major foreign policy disasters stem from both mistakes of commission (over-reaction) and mistakes of omission (under-reaction/passivity). Historians often have a better lens from which to determine which is which than decisionmakers who have to make decisions in real time. There are clearly limits and risks to what such limited military action can achieve, but we do have a pretty good sense of where this conflict is headed if nothing is done to alter the current trajectory. This, it seems to me, is the context in which President Obama has to make his decision.

Matthew Yglesias: The Case for Doing Nothing in Syria: Bombing is risky, illegal, and unlikely to help

Added: August 31, 2013

To be clear, the mere fact that bombing is rarely an optimal or cost-effective way of helping foreigners is not a reason to avoid doing it. The reason to avoid unilateral bombing campaigns is that the pursuit of long-term peace requires the United States to play by the rules. But if reading the news or watching television and thinking about the poor Syrian civilians is leaving you so conscience-stricken that somehow allowing the civil war to continue is intolerable, then think about all the other suffering you aren’t seeing on TV. Try doing something to help some of those people. President Obama himself needs to consider that his and his senior staff’s time and attention are one of the scarcest and most valuable resources on the planet. He needs to be spending that time wisely. If he finds himself pondering a problem for which he thinks he has “no good options,” that means he ought to move on to something else—to problems for which he does have good options but where the issue itself is languishing in obscurity. But for an unsolvable problem like Syria, the good option is the sensible one: Do nothing, and don’t start any unnecessary and illegal wars.

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