RAMESH THAKUR. Syria and the Hippocratic principle: first do no harm

Jan 13, 2017

Western interference has worsened the pathology of broken, corrupt and dysfunctional politics across the region from Afghanistan to North Africa.  

Antonio Guterres took office as the ninth U.N. secretary-general on Jan. 1 and Donald Trump takes office as the 45th U.S. president on the 20th. A major international crisis and humanitarian tragedy they inherit is the Syrian War.

Self-defined progressive liberals deny any responsibility for enabling the rise of Trump by imposing their moral frameworks of social policy on an increasingly resentful populace until the deplorables rose up in revolt to upend politics as we have known it.

Neoconservative cheerleaders of the Iraq War disclaim any responsibility for the spike in international terrorism that is yet to abate with the ensuing region-wide destabilization. The folly was compounded by going after the only two other secular dictators in the Mideast in Libya and Syria. The resulting catastrophe and humanitarian disasters in Iraq, Libya and Syria are there for all to see.

Uprisings in Syria began against the backdrop of the Arab Spring in March 2011 and were met with a brutal crackdown by the Assad regime. They escalated to armed conflict by year-end and drew in freedom fighters, jihadists and mercenaries from all over. The anti-regime opposition rapidly morphed and fragmented into increasingly radicalized groups fighting as much to establish an Islamist regime as to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The laws of war have been ignored by almost all sides and the legal basis for Western powers’ bombing raids in Syria remains unclear. The Western media highlights atrocities, civilian casualties and wanton destruction by government and Russian forces while ignoring or under-reporting equivalent acts by anti-regime forces.

Now in its sixth year, the civil war has cost nearly half a million lives and counting (plus almost two million wounded), and produced the biggest mass population shift of internally displaced persons and refugees in recent decades. Millions have grown to adulthood without experiencing childhood, deprived both of normalcy and education. Physical, social and health infrastructures have been badly degraded. Many priceless historical treasures deserving of the “common heritage of mankind” label have been destroyed.

Outside powers from the region and beyond have meddled with their own agendas. No one knows how many militias are active in the civil war, nor their strength, allegiances and external patrons. The Sunni–Shiite and Arab–non-Arab divisions also intersect in the Syrian War. Among the global powers, a painful consensus has emerged that the priority is to defeat the Islamic State radicals, not topple Assad. This offers yet another validation of Churchill’s enduring bon mot, that the Americans can be trusted to do the right thing after trying everything else first.

There is no shortage of intellectuals advocating for various courses of action that should have been taken in the past and that could yet be initiated to resolve the Syrian crisis. Yet hardly anyone seems to have asked: What if we had done less and stayed out of the developing civil war there from start to finish?

At one end of the spectrum, we could have gone in with a full-fledged invasion force, effected yet anther regime change in Damascus, and installed a West-leaning government dedicated to instilling a liberal democratic order that respects the rule of law and promotes human rights norms.

The template for this is coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither precedent worked out very well as Western forces proved highly efficient at winning the initial war but incapable of securing the peace and getting bogged down. Western publics lack the stomach for yet another Middle Eastern quagmire where liberators become occupiers and the grateful natives turn on them as jihadist influence takes deep root and anarchy is let loose.

A second option would have been to launch air strikes on government leaders and forces to support an offensive by rebels to capture the key institutions of government. Following the defeat of the ruling regime, a new coalition of anti-Assad forces would form an interim government pending internationally observed free and fair elections and peace and good governance would prevail. Unfortunately this did not work out too well in Libya. By comparison, Syria has a far greater potential to fragment, fracture and collapse into a sectarian bloodbath involving more numerous and vicious militias than their Libyan counterparts as the center fails to hold and the state withers away.

The policy actually pursued was to encourage the anti-Assad forces, give them arms, money and training, and back them diplomatically in international discourse, but without crossing the line into coordinating bombing raids with them against government targets. The returns on investment in “moderate” rebel forces was pathetic and the U.S. terminated the program in September 2015 when the military conceded that $500 million had produced just 60 fighters instead of the targeted 5,000.

Western governments were never able to distinguish “good” from “bad” rebels. As the ranks of the former thinned while the latter swelled, disillusionment grew in Western publics and governments, and the policy gradually changed to trying to defeat IS more than to overthrow Assad. Trump has indicated a willingness to work with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to this end, thereby drawing to a close U.S. President Barack Obama’s ill-conceived insistence that Assad must go.

The West is morally responsible for giving false hope though limited backing to the rebels since 2011 that was sufficient to prolong the armed conflict but not enough to secure a decisive victory. Far from fixing it, Western interference has worsened the pathology of broken, corrupt and dysfunctional politics across the region from Afghanistan to North Africa.

What would have been the overall result of a do-nothing policy — a variant of the Hippocratic principle of do no harm — as the last remaining option? Assad would have prevailed in his bloody crackdown, which he seems about to do anyway. But the brutal civil war would not have lasted so long and the cost would have been hugely lower with respect to numbers of people killed, wounded and displaced, property damaged, physical and health infrastructure gutted, and priceless archaeological sites destroyed.

But because our intent is virtuous, we can sleep soundly with a clear conscience untroubled by guilt over the harm done. Moreover, we must never, ever be held to account for the excess death and damage resulting from our meddling in the Mideast for more than a hundred years of futility. What was Einstein’s definition of insanity again?

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. The second edition of his book “The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect” has just been published.

This article first appeared in the Japan Times on January 11, 2017.

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