oreign intervention in the service of the greater good reflects a high-minded, crime-and-punishment society whose backbone is the rule of law, a basic component of American civics. Break the law and you risk prison, seen as a form of rehabilitation. Death penalty states can up those stakes. Rules give coherence to the sacred troika of punishment, redress and justice, no matter how flawed their application can sometimes be. Abominations are called to task. America is layered with such give-and-take.
But no matter how serious and sincere their intent, domestic civics begin fraying when applied to states that either reject them, in full or in part, or, bloodied, find frameworks limiting. Civil war-stricken Syria is just such a state — one among many.
While its regime now faces summary judgment based on a values system developed after atrocity-rich World War II, Syria played no direct part in that war or the generalized morality developed in its wake. Until that start of its 2011 civil war, it had been, like Egypt, a secular military state run by autocrats applauded by he West when they chose to side against the former Soviet Union or extremist Muslim groups — organizations that threaten seek to replace secular authoritarianism with religious tyranny. Syria often played both sides against the middle.
The civil war began when one-time supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, sensitive to Middle Eastern unrest, moved to oust their chief, hoping they’d be helped out by Western “friends” and succeed swiftly. But it was not swift — Assad has a compact, no-nonsense military — and potential rebel allies, Europe and the United States, unsettled by the Arab world’s unraveling (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia), saw the stubborn, well-organized Assad as a bridge too far. Syria also had strong ties with Turkey and Russia, both major regional players. Though Turkey has since washed its hands of Assad, Russia has not — and will not.
Early on, Assad’s precariousness gave the civics-oriented West an excuse to turn a blind eye to atrocities carried out on both sides. The regime’s days were numbered and “good” would prevail, or so they believed. They were wrong.
Russia soon began supplying the regime, a natural enough move from an ally; next, the apparently united rebels were infiltrated and in some cases undone by opportunistic Islamic extremists who had nothing common with liberal dissidents; finally, Hezbollah also intervened on behalf Assad, to repay an old debt (the Assads, father and son, had always stood by Lebanese Shiites) and attempt to further the group’s, and Iran’s, regional interests.
What was neatly and naively imagined as an “us” vs. “them” scenario (good rebels-bad Assad), a perfect Western framework, has since decayed into an abyss of competing interests, and atrocities. The reinforced Assad now faces a loose coalition of enemies — many unfriendly to each other. All the combatants long ago dispensed with civil pretenses, instead using any and all weapons at their disposal, including ones the West outlawed decades ago. Tens of thousands of civilians remain caught in the middle. More thousands have sought exile.
Syria’s standoff now exists willfully outside established moral physics and the tenets of the often-abused Geneva Convention. It is a rift no ethically optimistic or enlightened mind can fully fathom, let alone pretend to analyze rationally. It is also well outside the reach of the reliable American troika of redress, rehabilitation, and repair.
While an American secretary of state can passionately urge a response to “unspeakable horror” and decry “armchair isolationism,” insisting the U.S. “stand up and act,” most such traditional catchphrases lack substance — since no American invasion is at hand. Also meaningless if not futile is an American presidential promise to “upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.” Fix horror how? “De-isolate” in what way? And after punishment is exacted, what then? How do you neatly “upgrade” one side of an already degraded conflict whose combatants trivialize or ignore any “you can’t do that!” injunction?
Bonfires ignore the “credibility” of fire brigades. Instead, they burn on even when the hoses arrive — in this case in the form of a “limited and tailored” Western attack. Crime-and-punishment absent, those mauled by American punishment won’t feel chastened or humbled in the way Washington insists. More likely they will grow angrier, with one side resentful at the attack and the other livid because its scope was insufficient. Civilians will suffer their wandering rage.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is not Main Street or a mall. It’s not even a deep dark alley where dirty deeds done dirt cheap are later avenged by superheroes before a potential happy ending in which the wicked are demolished, or demonized, and the decent brandish an emoticon.
The Syrian regime won’t respond to the sending of warning “messages” because violence is the only currency it knows, and can know, likewise its moderate and extreme enemies. Such is civil war.
The West, if it wishes, can continue ruing its failure to intervene two years ago. But what it should not do (yet probably will do) is feel ennobled and suddenly more reputable by responding to a deadly gas attack through the cynical use of drone-like missiles, devices that in the absence of any human component, no lives at stake in their firing, miss the larger and more terrible point:
That blood feuds must be settled in house, isolated if need be and whatever the cost, so that those that come to rule in the aftermath, beholding a shattered and miserable homeland around them, can come around without coaching and on their own terms to the significance of the phrase “never again.”