Syria and the American Foreign Policy Dilemma

After last week's conceptual history of humanitarianism, we would like to comment on the current state of humanitarian intervention and speak even more directly to the conflict in Syria, in which Western military intervention has been considered but rejected since it began more than two years ago. Today, we look at how intervention and human suffering have changed in the last decade since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

One of the great dilemmas of the Syrian conflict is deciding whether or not the rebel forces are worth supporting – and if the United States does support them, will they be friendly after their inevitable American-backed victory.  Some of the rebels are known radical Islamists, like Jabhat al-Nusra, and are too close to the ilk of al-Qaeda, Iran and other enemies of American policy in the Middle East. American policy has been wholeheartedly focused on hunting down terrorists since the attacks of 9/11 more than a decade ago.  To support radical Islamists now, even against a dictator like Bashar al-Assad, would be a reactionary and contradictory policy that could have unforeseen negative consequences.

American policy was not always so conflicted.  Once the Soviet Union fell and the United States emerged as the hegemonic power, American decision makers had the option to dispose of resources to intervene or support a particular cause. In the 1990s, they were effectively the custodians of intervention and, as we mentioned last week, they spearheaded operations in Somalia, the Balkans and elsewhere. The attacks on 9/11, however, dramatically changed the United States’ poise. The amount of resources funnelled into the war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention an increasingly critical electorate—forced the US to adopt a more reticent position. China, Russia, and others emerged as economically powerful, yet democratically destitute, competitors on the international stage. In a way, the American stance on Syria is symptomatic of this shift in hegemonic structure. Syria has become a proxy state in which the foreign policies of the United States, Iran, and Russia are pitted against one another. Should the US side with al-Assad’s regime, which has the obvious support of Iran, or should the Americans support the Syrian opposition, of which “terrorists” like Jabhat al-Nusra or others are a key part? This is at the crux of the American dilemma.

The “War on Terror” emerged from a truly traumatic experience for the United States.  Even as a young, politically oblivious Canadian, I understood that something changed that morning.  I was sitting in math class listening to my teacher explain some form of calculus when our Vice Principal's voice came on over the intercom saying planes had been flown into the World Trade Centre in New York City.  My friends and I were unphased.  We were old enough to know it was important (after all, there had been an announcement about it), but neither old nor knowledgeable enough to know why.  A few hours later, as we crowded around television sets with fellow students and teachers alike, it dawned on us that the world was now a different place.  Like all historical events, how much it had changed would not be known for years as the consequences played out.  Even today, as the West hems and haws over action in Syria and American policy seems to be “wait and hope it doesn't end too badly,” we are still witnessing the long-term effects of those attacks.

Are these Syrian rebels terrorists, though?  Since 9/11, the term terrorist has been a catch-all term for any action against civilians and the state.  The War on Terror was quick to categorize enemies of the United States as terrorists to avoid legal issues of prisoners of wars and mobilize public support for action against them in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Any non-state actor demanding violent action against the United States could be considered a terrorist.  Other nations quickly joined the “war.”  The Americans conceded that Chechens in Russia were also terrorists, rather than freedom fighters. Palestinians too were far more easily lumped together and labelled as terrorists, rather than compartmentalizing into Hamas and other organizations.  As Martin A. Miller notes, after 9/11 terrorism became popularly associated only with “clandestine subsocial groups using tactics of violence to achieve specific political goals.” Now the broad strokes of the War on Terror impede US policy as they try to distinguish the “good guys” and “bad guys” among the rebels fighting against al-Assad’s dictatorship.  

American interest in the Middle East has been an uneven one. Nearly a decade after a war in Iraq for “freedom” and “democracy,” it claimed a duty to support the rebels in Libya, though it ignored the demands of other Arabs demanding more freedom from their governments.  The veneer of concern about human suffering, which in the 21st century now perhaps includes being unable to democratically elect a government, is a thin one.  American (and by extension, international) policy is concerned more with the idea of alleviating suffering rather than the practise of it. Syria is an excellent example of their continuing struggle to play politics while speaking to morality.  The opportunity for the West to once again intervene militarily to end a conflict is once again mired in political realities.  The suffering of human beings is, yet again, an integral justification of action without being the primary motivation for it.