The British Parliament will tomorrow decide whether to join France, Russia and the US in air operations against ISIS in Syria. The intention is to show that violence against innocent civilians wins no concessions. New destructive air raids intend to enforce global humanitarian norms against terror and violence on civilians. Not many believe though, that after a US, Russian, French and perhaps UK beating, ISIS will give up violence and the Middle East and Europe will be peaceful again. In fact, most experts unanimously agree that ISIS made a serious mistake in escalating its war to Europe, while there seems to be new evidence suggesting that France and the UK could also be making a mistake in intensifying violence in Syria.
In an academic article published today by Middle East Policy I show why the global enforcement of humanitarian values has failed. The article also reveals a diplomatic Syrian initiative by Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureatie Martti Ahtisaari, in February 2012, and the terms of this initiative.
Ahisaari’s dialogue formula was to replace militaristic global humanitarian law enforcement with negotiation, at the time when the West was only confronted by President Bashar al-Assad. According to the initiative that enjoyed Russian support, President Assad was to be offered a dignified exist from power, without totally destroying the Syrian state and pushing it into its current state of anarchy.
Instead of accepting to negotiate, the international community chose to enforce humanitarian norms against violence on civilians. However, in order to be successful global enforcement of global values has to be done by a universally legitimate global actor, not by illegal and illegitimate ad hoc coalitions of the willing. The imposition of a fair order on people who cannot influence the content of that order cannot be seen by the subjects of the order as anything but foreign interference. This sentiment of foreign interference is often the best guarantor of the felt legitimacy of violent dictatorial rulers.
Furthermore, when imposing global humanitarian norms on people that Western leaders are not accountable for, it has been difficult to avoid the corruption of distant governance of global values with selfish or even colonialistic interests. The study shows, for example, that oil interests do condition Western support of humanitarian values, such as democracy, human rights and resistance to terrorist violence against civilians.
Three rather disturbing facts demonstrate the failure of the enforcement of global humanitarian values:
- Despite declaratory intentions, Western support of regimes has so far served selfish interests more than humanitarian interests. It has consolidated tyrannical regimes more than democracies. It has punished more than rewarded changes to democracy and rewarded rather than punished moves to autocracy. In Syria this is exceptionally clear. According to an American database (Polity IV) Syria has moved towards democracy twice — in 1950 and 1954 — and both times this meant closer cooperation with the Soviet Union. Therefore, American punishment was forthcoming. According to the same database, Syria has only once experienced a dramatic democracy backsliding when the U.S. backed coup toppled Syria’s Husni al-Zaim in 1949.
- The recent experience of protection of civilians tends to show that such help is generally resisted by majorities of the very people who such policy attempts to rescue. Western operations against terrorist and dictatorial threats to civilians are, according to polls, very unpopular among Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and in general, people in areas where militaristic civilian protection has been attempted.
- Military protection of civilians tends to escalate conflicts that then kill the very civilians it aimed at protecting. Calculations based on Uppsala University’s statistics are quite explicit about this. In the Syria conflict battle death datasets show that violence increased drastically in 2013 when the Russians stepped up their military support to Assad and the covert CIA support to anti-Assad forces started. When the direct airborne military operations in the country started, there was a further increase in the number of fatalities in Syria.
In the beginning of 2012, about 250,000 conflict fatalities ago it could have been possible to reach a diplomatic solution and end the war by negotiating with Assad. It seems that Russians would have had ways to persuade Assad to agree to resign in a dignified manner. However, today, Russians no longer recognize the opportunities of 2012. As for the Russians, Assad’s exit from power no longer makes any sense in the face of the new ISIS threat.
If we want to learn from the lost opportunities of 2012, however, we should no longer look at Assad as the main enemy to be negotiated with. At the time when negotiating with Assad and Russians on how to jointly defeat the ISIS gain popularity, it seems that we are falling to the old trap of attempting to solve conflict problems by defeating the enemy instead of negotiating with it.
The general rule now, as in early 2012, is that in order to end war one will have to make peace with one’s enemy, not with one’s friends or tactical allies. Killing one’s enemy as a mutually assumed formula for the ending of wars only leads to further destruction. Negotiating with a repulsive enemy, Assad’s regime, who had used chemical weapons against its own citizens would have probably ended the war in 2012 and prevented the collapse of the Syrian state and the consequent rise of ISIS. To end the war today, however, will require that we are prepared to negotiate with the monsters who claimed responsibility for the horrors of 13 November. In 2012 not many compromises to Assad would have been needed. Today the compromise that could win peace in Syria could be the Western and Russian military withdrawal from areas we have no legitimate or legal right to meddle in.