April 30, 2013

Guest Post: Syria - Remembering Reality

Uditinder Thakur is a foreign affairs analyst, focused primarily on issues related to the broader Middle-East and South Asia. A graduate of American University’s School of International Service, he holds a degree in International Studies with concentrations in U.S. foreign policy, International Conflict Resolution, and Islamic Studies. He can be found on twitter @UditThakur_

As President Obama analyzes the ongoing crisis
in Syria, compounding threat variables and all, his
assessment should be tempered by a now unquestionable and unfortunate reality. The
state of Syria, the Arab world’s “beating heart,” has slipped into critical
condition and is not likely to recover anytime in the foreseeable future. All
signs show that the destruction of the nation is in its final stages, as a
once peaceful struggle has now descended into conflict marred by sectarian
strife and aspects of proxy warfare. A sense of cohesive Syrian
national identity has largely broken down only to be replaced by loyalties to
one’s religious group, ethnicity and/or family. Additionally, instances of
coercion and excessive uses of force by both competing parties in the
conflict further complicate the situation on the ground. With such a complex
mixture of interests and loyalties, establishing uniform measurements of moral
action is understandably problematic. Whatever happens next we can be sure of
the following: The chaos in Syria is sure to get far worse before it gets any

despite the several sobering complexities on the ground, there are still those that
call out for the United States to do
. This plea seems to be at the heart of Anne-Marie
Slaughter’s recent piece in the Washington Post; “Obama should remember Rwanda as
he weighs action in Syria
The title itself hearkens back to a moment of shameful tragedy, one worthy of
remembrance in its own right whenever policymakers approach issues of conflict today.
However, aside from invoking a shared emotional narrative, Slaughter’s
Rwanda-Syria comparison and the deeper underpinnings of her piece have a number
of factors that prove to be flawed.

the basic framework of comparing the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with the ongoing Syrian Civil War is highly problematic. Rwanda’s
genocide emerged from a conscious agenda to wipe out an entire ethnic group.
Syria, on the other hand, morphed quickly from a situation of peaceful protest
to one of all out civil war. Qualitatively the circumstances and contexts in
either case are hardly comparable. It is also worth noting that genocide in
Rwanda was a one-sided affair perpetrated by massive mobs of Hutus wielding
machetes, while Syria exists as a complex civil war involving heavily armed
rebel groups and even more heavily armed regime forces. These differences I’m
sure are not lost on Professor Slaughter, and yet she seems to prioritize
evoking the emotional similarities of the two cases, with our feelings of
helplessness and shame taking precedence over any sort of strategic discussion.

emphasis on abstract characterizations of conflict continues, as Slaughter
addresses the issue of the Assad regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons. Instead of addressing the
actual significance of chemical weapons, knowing how limited U.S. options in
Syria are, Slaughter simply accepts them as a game-changer and describes a
situation in which one increasingly feels as though the U.S. has no choice but
to act. Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer and current professor
at Georgetown University, has warned against this type of false dichotomy
between chemical weapons use and the need for an escalated U.S. response as he notes
the following:  

So once again—as
was the case ten years ago—a factual question with a presumed yes-or-no answer
about a regime's use or possession of a certain category of weapons gets
treated as if the answer dictates a certain policy course, even though it

Following up on
Pillar’s criticism of the game-changing nature of chemical weapons is
important. At present, the President’s logic on chemical weapons dissects the
issue into two dimensions, one based on a concern for international legal and
moral norms while the other focuses on the strategic threats posed by the proliferation
of such weapons. President Obama clarified his approach during his most recent
news conference, in which he defended his chemical weapons red-line by stating:

[…] we have
established international law and international norms that say when you use
these kinds of weapons you have the potential of killing massive numbers of
people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so
significant that we don't want that genie out of the bottle. So when I said
that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn’t unique to
-- that wasn’t a position unique to the United States and it shouldn’t have
been a surprise.

Due to the fact that the violence
in Syria already constitutes a violation of several international norms,
particularly regarding the targeting of civilians, the President understands
that any arguments for increased U.S. involvement will have to be based
primarily on an approach that emphasizes the threats posed by chemical weapons
proliferation. He gave evidence that this approach will most likely be the one
he favors as he went on to say:

[…] if I can
establish in a way that not only the United States but also the international
community feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,
then that is a game-changer because what that portends is potentially even more
devastating attacks on civilians, and it raises the strong possibility that
those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands and get disseminated in
ways that would threaten U.S. security or the security of our allies.

such an approach by the President would show a slight bias towards pragmatism,
his persistent caution shows some signs of the fact that he is weighing the
realities of the situation. Arguing that chemical weapons pose a hypothetical
threat to U.S. national security is not enough to justify increased U.S.
action. Instead, the President now faces the task of weighing the potential
threats. He must now determine whether the threats emanating from possible
proliferation of chemical weapons outweigh the threats posed by the fact that increased
U.S. action could actually exacerbate violence within the region. Within the
context of this debate, over which threats poses the greatest threat,
Slaughter’s analogy to Rwanda takes on an all too familiar rhetoric.

Slaughter’s argument assures us that while anti-Americanism in the region
currently exists as “a cancer,” the lack of a strong US response to Assad’s use
of chemical weapons puts us at risk of cementing such sentiments throughout the
Muslim world. Herein lays a greater problem with Slaughter’s characterization
of action versus inaction in Syria. In Slaughter’s formula, action exists as a
solution framed in the language of moralism as opposed to morality. The
President and readers are asked to believe that somehow the perceived
injustices of fifty plus years of U.S. foreign policy failures within the
Middle-East have culminated up until this point, and that our actions in this
particular conflict hold the key to shifting our entire image in the region.
Such wishful thinking avoids the fundamental conflicts between stated U.S.
strategic interests in the region and the aspirations of the people of the
Middle-East and North Africa. Anti-Americanism is the result of a set of
structural deficiencies in U.S. foreign policy, all of which stem from
unfortunately irreconcilable differences between U.S. interests in “stability”
in a region characterized by increasing popular demands for greater sovereignty.
Until one is willing to come to terms with that fact, and place morality and
espoused values clearly above all other strategic interests, the people of the
region will have no major shift in their views towards U.S. policy.

lesson in all of this however, is not that we should eschew action or inaction
in Syria. More importantly is the question of how our actions in this conflict
must be framed. Discussing Syria from the perspectives of moralism or American
exceptionalism will not simplify the cold-hard realities of the present
situation. As it stands today, whether the US imposes a no-fly zone, provides
lethal aid to the rebels, or does nothing at all, it is virtually guaranteed
that at least hundreds if not thousands more will die. That is the nature of a
conflict in which central themes of revenge and justice have emerged in
reaction to accounts of atrocities on both sides. It is precisely this complex
nature of conflict that should have been among the most important lessons
learned from our experiences in Iraq. Andrew Sullivan expressed this lesson in
his 2008 piece titled “What I Got Wrong About Iraq,” where he made the following

I recall very
clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons
for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both
sides, the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed
of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own
morality and this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But
what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one
weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one
hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's
unknowable consequences far too glibly.

rests a final critique of the ideology behind Slaughter’s problematic plea for
us to “remember Rwanda.” Her comparison calls us to remember only our immediate
and emotional responses to conflict, while altogether avoiding the fact that
there is no outcome in Syria that does not end with at least thousands more causalities.
The prevalence of this moralist rhetoric in referring to conflicts is rampant,
and while I may be referring specifically to Professor Slaughter’s piece I am
by no mean’s singling her out as a unique offender. The practice of confusing
strategy with ideology, or prioritizing the latter at the cost of the former,
has been referred to as a growing problem in U.S. foreign policy by a
number of leading international relations theorists. The importance of this
theme cannot be over-emphasized, especially in the case of Syria, and we must be
careful to guard against its potentially disastrous effects.

is supremely important for us to approach the Syrian conflict differently than
we have approached challenges in the past. The usual language of moralism and
poli-speak will not cut it. Regardless of what actions we end up taking in
response to a prolonged conflict, policy makers and citizens alike will have to
understand the profound ramifications such actions will have considering the
realities of American power.  Over-estimating
our capabilities and imagining post-Assad Syria as a more peaceful environment runs
contrary to reality, and as such has no connection to self-professed notions of

this conflict ends we can rest assured that it will force us to understand just
how limited our ability to dictate the outcome of events in places like Syria
has become.

Therefore, it goes without saying, the question
the President must answer is not the one that Dr. Slaughter poses in regards to
chemical weapons. The question has been, and remains:

Does the U.S.
have the capacity to end the violence, in any meaningful way, within the immediate

The answer, at
present, remains a resounding no.