The Weak Suffer What they Must: Power Politics vs Humanitarianism in Syria

The war in Syria is back in the Western news. Assad’s forces have once again launched an offensive to eventually bring Syria back under his control. This time it is the city of Ghouta which has borne the brunt of the fighting, with hundreds of civilians feared dead and wounded. The British Prime Minister Theresa May was asked in Prime Minister’s Questions what the UK government was going to do with the United Nations to stop the destruction. A more fundamental question would be what can the UN and international community actually do? The answer appears to be not very much; power politics reigns supreme.

During the 1992 US Presidential election Bill Clinton declared ‘the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era in which ideas and information are broadcast around the globe before ambassadors can read their cable.’ In the face of destruction in Syria, Clinton seems to have been wrong.

International politics has been characterised as a constant competition between different states for power and influence. This was the view of a variety of thinkers from Machiavelli to Winston Churchill. After the Cold War, a new order was envisioned by many leaders like Bill Clinton. Democracy would be promoted, international law upheld, human rights promoted and, when necessary, military force utilised to promote peace. This has not happened in Syria.

The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. The United Nations and the international community can only stand idly by as handmaidens to the destruction. Any serious attempt to stop Assad’s forces, such as peacekeepers on the ground or a no-fly zone, require the UN Security Council’s authorisation; China and Russia hold veto’s over any action like this. Unilateral action by a Western power would likewise be unlikely and short lived. Assad possesses an impressive air defence system, along with a still effective and functioning army. He also has the backing of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah; no Western power would risk casualties for the sake of humanitarianism.

All that said, the moral force of the international community does still hold some weight. Assad could have won this war a long time ago; chemical weapons, air strikes and heavy artillery would have made light work of the few thousand Free Syrian Army troops resisting him and the various jihadist groups who spend more time fighting each other than against Assad. Assad has chosen not to embark on this strategy out of fear that the suffering will tip world opinion against him and lead to large scale intervention against him.

The liberal world order that took root after the Cold War has been under attack for many years, in both domestic and international politics. Successful humanitarian interventions by the West in Yugoslavia, the First Gulf War and Sierra Leone have not been repeated. With Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya hanging over the heads of every Western leader it is unlikely any meaningful intervention will be taken to stop the atrocities in Syria, or indeed anywhere else. The liberal international order is dead; long live the new world order?

Article by Joseph Wright

Photograph: Newsweek

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