That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
- Declaration of Independence, America, 1776
120,000 dead. 6 million refugees. 1,000 killed by sarin gas. Syria, 2013
It’s difficult to imagine a current government more destructive than the current Syrian regime. Yet, to understand why so many people have been killed, and most likely will continue to be killed, we must look to the past.
The Middle East has a long memory. The Sunni and Shia groups of Islam continue to dispute, sometimes violently, since a succession crisis in the 7th Century CE.
In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, the then President of Syria, solved his insurgency problem by setting out to terrorize the opposition, and indiscriminately killed 30,000 Syrians in the city of Hama, completely destroying large portions of the city with tanks and bombs. “When I drove into Hama at the end of May, I found three areas of the city that had been totally flattened—each the size of four football fields and covered with the yellowish tint of crushed concrete,” wrote Thomas Friedman. His conclusion was that Assad would do anything to stay in power.
Why would this be? Why can’t we expect the Syrian government to not slaughter it’s own citizens indiscriminately? I believe that the answer can be, again, found in history. Syria attained its independence after World War II. Between 1949 and 1970, Syria underwent no fewer than eight military coups, and frequently experienced domestic unrest or revolution. The last of these rapid exchanges of power put Hafez al-Assad in power.
Unsurprisingly, Hafez al-Assad put his entire extended family into positions of power. But surprisingly, Hafez al-Assad came from a tribe, the Alawites, which had for the previous 10 centuries been persecuted by Sunni and Shia Muslims for their unique form of Islam. Suddenly, this minority, about ten percent of the people in Syria, held all of the hard power. They have been holding their positions of power, possibly, out of necessity; should the tables turn on them again, they would most likely be severely persecuted.
There was a hope, however, that Hafez’s son, Bashar Al-Assad, would serve as a kinder, gentler, more Westernized military dictator. After all, he studied ophthalmology at the postgraduate level at Western Eye Hospital in London, and his stylish wife, Asma al-Assad, has an affinity for European luxury brands, and has appeared in Vogue. These hopes fit into the bafflingly common Western analysis of new Arab leaders: all too often, immense amounts of irrational good-will are assumed to exist in their hearts, and they are often given the title “reformer.” Rarely do they actually institute any substantive reforms. Students of Middle Eastern history ought to be concerned at the frightening frequency with which this pattern repeats itself.
Actions speak louder than words, and the events of the Syrian Civil War have removed the aura imbued upon the “reformer” Assad. In April 2011, large, peaceful protests in Syria were the target of a brutal military crackdown, which has, of course, spiralled into Syrian military action against its own citizens. More than 120,000 Syrians have been killed on both sides.
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states, ”It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” The government of Syria has failed to uphold the rule of law by indiscriminately massacring its own people. The people, therefore, have a fundamental right to rebel against tyranny and oppression, and America should support the rebels, rather than watch an ongoing atrocity that will claim the lives of unknown thousands.
America’s own struggle for independence was substantially aided by a foreign power: France. The diplomatic recognition of the American Revolution, won by Benjamin Franklin in Paris, was absolutely vital for American Independence. It is important to remember that General Cornwallis was defeated at Yorktown, the final decisive battle of the American Revolution, by equal numbers of American and French soldiers. Why should we expect the Syrian rebels to defeat a modern nation-state without assistance?
The most basic American policy debates of the last 150 years have surrounded so-called “isolationism” versus “interventionism.” Given the results of our most recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which saw much blood and treasure spent to achieve ill-defined goals, the American people are understandably wary about another foreign entanglement. However, taking an isolationist approach recklessly ignores the global nature of threats to our security and freedom. The injustice of an army turned on its own citizens violates our basic notions of human rights and the duty of a country to protect its citizens.
Sadly, the recent negotiations about chemical weapons only move the spotlight away from the massive slaughter and human tragedy caused by the international community’s continued policy of non-intervention. In retrospect, the humanitarian response would have been to reduce the ability of both sides to kill each other before so many were killed.
Sanctions have also been proposed and then implemented by the international community to pressure Assad into laying down his arms. However, sanctions on Syria actually raise the price of food and other human necessities. This harms the refugees, who for the most part do not live in refugee camps, but are truly displaced people, both within and outside of Syria. In Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, the refugees’ economic needs threaten to overwhelm local infrastructure and social services. Both an influx of humanitarian aid and responsible geopolitics in the form of military intervention are necessary to stabilize the region.
Without the consensus of the international community, it will be difficult to implement any solution. I am afraid that Syria will be like Darfur, in which more than 400,000 people were killed by their nominal government before a separate state of South Sudan was established. Although this did not solve the problem, the inaction of the international community while innocent civilians were terrorized, murdered, and many more transformed into refugees stands as a dark stain on efforts to secure international human rights.
The diverse ethnic and religious mosaic of Syria has collapsed. Therefore, the intervention of NATO in the Balkans, which prevented continued ethnic cleansing by both sides, serves as a model for what ought to be done. Like Yugoslavia, perhaps Syria will have to be broken into several smaller states or areas. Long-term planning aside, however, the slaughter must stop.
In a very short amount of time, the number killed in this conflict has doubled from 60,000 to 120,000, reflecting how the military might of Syria has been turned on urban centers and their civilians. But fatalities are only the tip of the iceberg. The flood of more than 2 million refugees outside of Syria threatens to destabilize the region. Furthermore, within Syria, a recent UN report counted more than 4 million internally displaced persons - a staggering figure, considering Syria has a population of only 23 million.
The massive number of those already killed may yet double or triple in what ought to be seen as a fight to death between the Syrian government and the rebels. No mercy has been shown by either side in a conflict that continues to destabilize the entire region, and the lives of many millions of people are now in limbo as a massive refugee crisis continues to unfold. Peace must be imposed by the international community, and must be imposed soon, if there is any hope in restoring refugees to their homes and rebuilding Syria.