Gwynne Dyer: Today Libya, tomorrow Syria?

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      Last Friday (March 18) saw the first nationwide protests against the Baath regime in Syria. If these protests develop into a full-scale revolt, the regime’s response may dwarf that of Colonel Gadhafi in Libya.

      The last time Syrians rebelled, in the city of Hama in 1982, President Hafez al-Assad sent in the army to smash the insurrection. Hama’s centre was destroyed by artillery fire, and at least 17,000 people were killed.

      The current Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is allegedly a gentler person than his father Hafez, but the Baath Party still rules Syria, and it is just as ruthless as ever. So what happens if the Syrian revolution gets under way, and the Baath Party starts slaughtering people again? Do the same forces now intervening in Libya get sent to Syria as well?

      Syria has four times Libya’s population and very serious armed forces. The Baath Party is as centralised and intolerant of dissent as the old Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Moreover, it is controlled internally by a sectarian minority, the Alawis, who fear that they would suffer terrible vengeance if they ever lost power.

      The UN Security Council was absolutely right to order the use of “all necessary measures” (meaning armed force) to stop Gadhafi’s regime from attacking the Libyan people. But it does move us all into unknown territory: today Libya, tomorrow Syria?

      The “responsibility to protect” concept that underpins the UN decision on Libya was first proposed in 2001 by Lloyd Axworthy, then Canada’s foreign minister. He was frustrated by the UN’s inability to stop the genocides in Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s, and he concluded that the problem was the UN’s own rules. So he set out to change them.

      The original goal of the United Nations, embedded in the Charter signed in 1945, was to prevent any more big wars like the one just past, which had killed over 50 million people and ended with the use of nuclear weapons. There was some blather about human rights in there too, but in order to get all the great powers to sign up to a treaty outlawing war, there had to be a deal that negated all that.

      The deal was that the great powers (and indeed, all of the UN members) would have absolute sovereignty within their own territory, including the right to kill whoever opposed their rule. It wasn’t written quite like that, but the meaning was quite clear: the UN had no right to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state no matter how badly it behaved.

      By the early 21st century, however, the threat of a nuclear war between the great powers had faded away, while local massacres and genocides proliferated. Yet the UN was still hamstrung by the 1945 rules and unable to intervene. So Lloyd Axworthy set up the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to popularize the concept of humanitarian intervention under the name of "Responsibility to protect”.

      It was purely a Canadian government initiative. “You can't allow dictators to use the facade of national sovereignty to justify ethnic cleansing,” Axworthy explained, and so he launched a head-on attack on sovereignty.

      The commission he set up concluded, unsurprisingly that the UN should have an obligation to protect people from mass killing at the hands of their own government. Since that could only be accomplished, in practice, by military force, it was actually suggesting that the UN Security Council should have the right to order attacks on countries that indulged in such behaviour.

      This recommendation then languished for some years. The most determined opponents of “responsibility to protect” were the great powers—Russia and China in particular—who feared that the new doctrine might one day be used against them. But in 2005 the new African Union included the concept in its founding charter, and after that things moved quite fast.

      In 2006 the Security Council agreed that “we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner...should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” And there they are five years later, taking military action against Gadhafi.

      Ten out of 15 Security Council members voted in favour of the action, and the rest, including all four of the emerging great powers, the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), abstained. But Russia and China didn’t veto the action, because they have finally figured out that the new principle will never be used against them.

      Nobody will ever attack Russia to make it be nicer to the Chechens, or invade China to make it change its behaviour towards the Tibetans. Great powers are effectively exempt from all the rules if they choose to be, precisely because they are so powerful. That’s no argument for also exempting less powerful but nastier regimes from the obligation not to murder their own people.

      So what about the Syrian regime? The same crude calculation applies. If it’s not too tough and powerful to take on, then it will not be allowed to murder its own people. And if it is too big and dangerous, then all the UN members will express their strong disapproval, but they won’t actually do anything.

      Consistency is an overrated virtue.

      Comments

      13 Comments

      they won't do anything

      Mar 21, 2011 at 11:12am

      Egypt gets a new leader, but surprisingly enough nothing much has changed. If Egyptians don't like their new leader and decide to rebel will the UN come and protect them and do it all over again? The new leader will be younger and healthier than the last with a military to set the rebels straight.

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      Macrackin

      Mar 21, 2011 at 1:09pm

      What happened to North Korea and Iran? Remember they supposedly had nuclear materials. Remember "Axis of Evil" what going on in Afghanistan? What about Iraq? Whats going on with Osama bin Laden? How about the Taliban?

      We are being lied too!

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      KiDDAA Magazine

      Mar 21, 2011 at 1:31pm

      Look Iraq and Afghanistan were disasters and they are still going on. Libya obviously was a weak nation with oil. What remains to be seen will this do anything good but partition the country. I love Canada but Canada's commitment to this war was trivial as once again its a US war with them doing all the stuff. They never liked Kadafi but he has oil. The good thing is that they will never go after nations who can fight back like Iran, China, Russia and my guess never Syria. The world should press against the occupation of Palestine. And I hope this new stupid war will be quick and few Libyans who are black, brown and white will die. A truly interesting and diverse country that until a few weeks ago UK and France loved and supported Kaddafi.

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      Yana

      Mar 21, 2011 at 3:49pm

      How does this apply to Bahrain? Does anyone have information on what exactly is going on there? Is it ethnic cleansing? Is it a proxi war between Saudis and Iran? There is very little coverage in the media..

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      Pat Crowe

      Mar 21, 2011 at 5:40pm

      I kind of always liked the devil I know.
      But that's just me.

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      stoneweapon

      Mar 22, 2011 at 4:49am

      There would be no need to protect the Benghazi, Az Zawiya, and Misrata cities if it hadn't been infiltrated by foreign corporate interests in the first place. The seeds of this war were planted in the oil fields. The rebellion in Libya is geographically connected to licensed area of oil and gas by BP, Exxon, Hess, Repsol, SOC, Japex, ONGC, ENI, Nippon and many others. I would strongly recommend researching the foreign investment in Libya to further understand its potential geographical influence on the peoples

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      stoneweapon

      Mar 22, 2011 at 5:44am

      Dyer tends to have an economic disconnect in his progressive analysis, but then again who doesn't? Most of us do not pay enough attention in how foreign investment leaks its ideals into society, and the lengths their governments are willing to go to support it. Corporate investors demand first and foremost a rule of law that will protect its investment, the people's right to share the wealth of their resources is not considered. The profits generated through the extraction of oil and gas in the lesser developed world, which flow into the wages, pensions, dividends and shares of their foreign owners and participation are grossly under taxed. The oil fields of Libya have a great deal to offer to the cheerleaders of this war, whom their economic difficulties at home are struggling with enormous public costs of healthcare, pensions and especially arms. Is the cost of war finally reaching a bad return of investment?

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      Mickie Updajock

      Mar 22, 2011 at 9:09am

      the regimes in the Middle East will all eventually be changed. None are exactly the best but it is also wrong for the West to intervene and cause worse problems. What will the actions in Libya by the West do? Another Iraq and Afghanistan anyone? Misery for the people in the country and recession in the West? Probably more of same as is always the case with all these failed wars. Over the past 20 years, the West has fought 5 major wars (1991, 1999, 2001-, 2003-, 2011-) and many minor bombardments of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan and Afghanistan as well. Only the 1999 one in Kosovo was any kind of success gained.

      It is also amazing to see who the West's real allies are. One of them clearly is Iran - tolerated for over 30 years. We are lead to believe that Iran is an enemy of the West. Iran's main enemy is Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is also Israel's real enemy. Yes, do not be fooled by lying Iranian and Western politicians - they are not at all what they seem. Iran and Israel would love to crowd out Arab influence in the Middle East between them. Iran Contra affair just nearly exposed the sham that is US/Iranian relations.

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      Bob Pellow

      Mar 22, 2011 at 9:29am

      I love Gwynne's down to earth descriptions of the movitations behind the decision making here. I think that Gadaffi's big mistake was to trust the Western powers when he eliminated his nuclear program and renounced support for terrorism. It has to be a lesson for the rest of the despotic powers around the globe. I doubt that Harper would be willing to engage Syria if its citizens began to revolt and were faced with massacre, no matter what his commitment to "freedom". America's little boy will do what he is told and that is as far as he will go.

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      McRocket

      Mar 22, 2011 at 9:45pm

      9 times out of 10, I agree with Gwynne Dyer. Not this time when he types 'The UN Security Council was absolutely right to order the use of “all necessary measures” (meaning armed force) to stop Gadhafi’s regime from attacking the Libyan people.'

      There have apparently been about 8,000 people killed in this uprising (according to a Rebel spokesperson). An uprising that the Rebels seemed to either instigate or at least do little to stop. it seems they have decided that violence is the best way to attain their goals - no matter how many innocent civilians (on both sides) have to die in the process.
      Their leader - Mustafa Abdul Jalil - was Gaddafi's Minister of Justice less then a month ago.
      Yes - this group looks to be better for most Libyan's then Gaddafi.
      But they are supporting violence. They are also helping to create it. Other countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain, etc.; they have not resorted to much violence. But the West offers nothing more then 'atta boys' to them. But these rebels openly invite civil war that, by their own admission, has already cost over 8,000 lives. And these people are to be supported - even though there is virtually no proof that (other then a bunch of promises) they will offer the Libyan people a substantially better life?

      If this was an internationally recognized government that won fair elections? Fine. If it could be proven that Gaddafi was committing genocide against his people (which he might if he won - I admit)? Fine - then intervene.

      But the West is deciding which side is better without a ton of information, as I see it.

      They should commit military forces for only two reasons:

      1) to force a cease fire. Not take a side and start bombing the other's forces (while letting the first side kill troops/civilians at will). Impose a cease fire and enforce it with air, sea AND ground forces (though I highly doubt the Western leaders have the honour and/or stomach for that).

      or 2) only intervene once one side or both starts to commit genocide on a relatively large scale and again fully intervene with air, sea AND ground forces.

      This UN action is little more (imo) then a half-hearted though probably well intentioned attempt to choose sides in this affair.

      I say either go in to stop the killing on both sides - or butt out.

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