By Jonathan Power
The fog of war in Syria descends. Alliances on the ground come and go. America wobbles. Europe wrings its hands. Russia ups its military commitment, fearful of an arc of Sunni militancy that will make common cause with Russia’s own fundamentalists in Chechnya and Dagestan. Much of the rest of the world looks on with half shut eyes.
The debate swirls. Can the West have any profound impact on the Syrian civil war? Can it help depose the Assad regime? Does it really think it can influence the making of a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, Syria? Is President Barack Obama, after months of resisting the sirens calling for military support of the rebels, beginning to think it can play a more important part than hitherto? With the direct provision of American (and British and French) arms is he coming to believe that this will tilt the balance in the insurgents’ favour?
The US spent $3 trillion in an attempt to bring democracy to Iraq after President George W. Bush and his acolyte, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, promised that democratizing the country could be done quickly. Indeed, they boasted that democratizing Iraq would initiate a wave of liberalisation in the surrounding countries. In Afghanistan, the longest war in two centuries, the same promise was made, also at huge cost. In neither state has democracy of the kind that most of us interpret it to be arrived.
Is force-induced regime change by outsiders ever an effective means of spreading democracy? Optimists point to Germany and Japan at the conclusion of the Second World War. Yet Germany had by far the highest number of US troops per capita of any US nation-building effort in the last 60 years. Germany also received the largest total amount of aid ever given. Japan too, thanks to the US occupation, was in many ways totally revamped, a processed eased by massive amounts of aid.
Often overlooked was the strength and sophistication of German and Japanese institutions and the high number of well-educated bureaucrats, teachers and professionals and a tradition of constitutional rule (although not democracy). Neither country was riven by ethnic nor religious fractionalization.
Optimists also argue that Western intervention ended the civil wars in ex-Yugoslavia – that the Dayton Accords installed democratic institutions. But overlooked on the one hand is that since the fall of communism Yugoslavia had been to some degree democratic. And today on the other hand, 18 years after Dayton, democracy remains dysfunctional in Bosnia which was the part of ex-Yugoslavia most hit by the fighting.
According to Professors Alexander Downs and Jonathan Monten, writing in the current issue of Harvard’s “International Security”, studies that have examined in total more than 1,000 cases of intervention over many years show that the successful removal of leaders by outsiders has been “exceedingly rare”. Few scholars, they argue, point to the success of intervention in achieving democracy.
Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan nor Syria have the positives of Germany and Japan. Indeed, foreign intervention in heterogeneous states is likely to set off struggles for power by contending groups.
Even if the insurgents in Syria were successful the struggle for power among their factions would be terrifying to behold. Civil war would continue. Even more civilians would be killed.
In the last century there are only two instances of successful foreign imposed regime change, other than Germany and Japan. They were Panama and Haiti, both tiny countries with a monolithic population. (And Haiti later regressed.)
In the early part of the century the US attempted to democratize nearby Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. It intervened with troops five times without success. It overthrew three Dominican governments in 1912, 1914 and 1916. In Nicaragua in 1910 and 1926 it overthrew the government twice with no beneficial result.
From Washington’s or London’s perspective the Assad regime looks vulnerable and one that can be toppled with just an extra bit of armed push. But looks are deceiving. Any intervention, even just giving the rebels serious military hardware or imposing a no-fly zone, would likely result in failure. Intervention by the US is always a slippery slope, and each failure would become an argument by the hawks for a greater application of force. Where does that end?
I rather like the idea of Professor David Scheffer, the former US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes. The UN Security Council should be asked to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. Both the regime and some of the rebels would be charged with crimes against humanity if fighting continues. At the least it could be a serious factor in making both sides more amenable to a cease-fire and peace talks.
There is no reason of realpolitik that should stop the US and Russia vetoing such a resolution.
Copyright: Jonathan Power