Time for our leaders to stop talking about ‘justice’ in Syria if we can’t or won’t enforce it

Honesty may be the best and only realistic policy

‘It’s about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.’
— David Cameron, 27 August

‘The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot and must not go unpunished.’
— François Hollande, 30 August

‘We lead with the belief that right makes might, not the other way around.’
— Barack Obama, 31 August


In their speech, in their manner and in their choice of language, the American President, the French President and the British Prime Minister have been impeccably clear about their motivations for military intervention in Syria. They don’t want to use force for economic gain. They aren’t in this for national interest.
Strictly speaking, they aren’t moved by humanitarian reasons, either. During the two years of fighting in Syria, more than 100,000 people have died, and more than two -million have been displaced. Syria’s neighbours now host one of the largest and potentially most destabilising refugee crises in the world. But that is not why America, Britain and France began their wobbly debate on intervention.
No, Barack Obama, François Hollande and David Cameron have been driven to contemplate intervention in Syria because of their belief in justice — or perhaps, because it’s an abstract ideal, one ought to write Justice. Obama’s tortured statements on Syria usually feature the word ‘accountable’ (as in ‘we can hold the Assad regime accountable’ or ‘all of us should be accountable’) as well as frequent use of the word ‘rights’. British and the French leaders (see above) have spoken of the chemical attack in Damascus as a violation of international law, as a crime that must be punished or as a wrong that must be righted.
One understands why: to speak of justice, of rights and of accountability is to sound statesmanlike and serious. That kind of language contains echoes of the second world war and the Cold War, when the western and particularly the American devotion to justice and human rights helped western democracy triumph over totalitarian regimes. Similar ideas are encoded in international treaties and documents. They have spread to other parts of the world, where they continue to inspire people who are deprived of them.
But the trouble with the fight for justice is that it cannot always remain abstract or rhetorical. Fulfilling the promise of justice sometimes requires not just treaties and declarations but major diplomatic, political and even military commitment. In practice, wars do not always have satisfactory endings. The good guys don’t always win, and the war crimes trials don’t always take place. Sometimes the perpetrators have better weapons. Sometimes unjust rulers have a more professional army. Sometimes an authoritarian regime will fight to the death because its leaders believe they have no future if they fall from power.
All of which leaves us in an awkward but not unfamiliar situation in Syria. Indeed, we’ve been here before: after the first Iraq war, when we encouraged but did not aid a Shi’ite uprising, or during the Bosnian war, when President Clinton always seemed just about to use military force but could never quite bring himself to do it. He dithered for a long time, effectively preventing a peace treaty from taking hold, before finally entering the conflict, awkwardly and late.
Now we are there again. We want to use grandiose language about justice, but we can’t or don’t want to devote the military and political capital to intervention. Obama — together with his French and British allies — therefore invented an extremely narrow, highly legalistic halfway solution: a one-time strike intended solely to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. In Europe over the weekend, John Kerry assured his fellow foreign secretaries that this strike will be so minor ‘you’ll hardly even notice’. Don’t worry, he has declared, whatever we do will be ‘unbelievably small’.
Of course this one-time strike, so tiny we’ll hardly even notice, was, we were told, not designed to end the Syrian conflict or even to help the Syrian rebels much. Thus any justice it delivered could only have been temporary. It wouldn’t prevent Assad using chemical weapons, or ordinary weapons, against his own people in the future. It wouldn’t prevent him from lashing out in revenge, perhaps at the Christians inside his country, perhaps at his Israeli neighbours. It wouldn’t bring peace to Syria, and indeed might have the opposite effect: by encouraging the rebels to keep fighting, it could prolong the war.
At some level, even Obama and Cameron clearly saw the flaws in this narrowly conceived policy. Anxiety about the wisdom of this one-time strike must explain why Cameron abandoned it immediately, after losing in the Commons by a scant 13 votes and with nearly 100 members missing. Similar anxiety must also explain Obama’s unexpected decision to call for a congressional vote which he may well have been subconsciously hoping to lose. The relief with which everyone has now leapt upon the ludicrous idea that the Russians, Assad’s longstanding allies, will faithfully, neutrally and rapidly dismantle his chemical weapons tells you everything you need to know: our leaders will hastily grasp at the most slender excuse to avoid even that ‘unbelievably small’ strike.
How much simpler things would be if they dropped the façade! For there is another way: instead of shedding crocodile tears once again, instead of implying that a muscular intervention is about to arrive any minute now, instead of pretending to care about the fate of Syrian children, the West could drop the pious rhetoric about justice altogether. If we don’t have the motivation or the money to enforce it, we should make it crystal clear to the Syrian rebels that we will not intervene in any significant way at all. Obama could say it in the White House Rose Garden, Cameron could say it in Downing Street, Hollande could declare it from his office at the Élysée: we are not coming to your aid, we will not help you, we will not overthrow Assad.
Instead, we could encourage the remaining secular rebels and the Free Syrian Army to pursue peace instead of justice: after all, if no further assistance is coming, then they aren’t likely to win more territory. Russian and Iranian funding for the regime will continue, of course, as will Gulf state funding of Islamic extremists. But perhaps a broad ‘national unity’ coalition could be negotiated — an entity which would have to contain Assad or his allies and perhaps some representatives of al-Qa’eda. Alternatively Syria could be partitioned, and there would be some logic to our involvement — Britain and France drew the borders in the first place. Some violence would follow, but maybe less than at present.
I do realise that these are unsatisfying, even cynical alternatives, involving the inclusion of Assad and the jihadis on the one hand, or ethnic cleansing on the other. Neither will help our leaders sound statesmanlike, and they won’t make them look good on the international stage. They aren’t ‘just’. They aren’t ‘fair’. Indeed, any American president who condones a deal with Assad will no longer be able to declare that ‘right makes might, not the other way around’, at least not with a straight face.
What such a policy change lacks in morality and humanity, it makes up for in honesty. At least our friends in Syria — the remaining divisions of the Free Syrian Army, the secular intellectuals, the human rights activists, the cartoonists, writers and bloggers who started what began as a peaceful revolution and now live in exile — will know where they stand. They, and the fate of their country, are not really Obama’s, or Cameron’s, or Hollande’s priority. At least in future Syrians will not be hoodwinked by our leaders’ use of words they don’t really mean, or their praise for old-fashioned concepts they are no longer willing to enforce.