I am sure I am not alone in asking myself many questions prompted by the Syrian tragedy. The questions of the past weeks do not just concern Obama’s red lines or how the US or the EU should or should not position themselves over a military intervention. Countries have been hiding behind the legal argument about the lack of a UN mandate, past interventions have set weighty precedents, the lack of unquestionable evidence justifying war and a glaring strategic vacuum about the ends of this intervention are such that a quest for moral honesty is not a crazy thing to do. The arguments need to be debated, not used as fig leaves.
My questions also regard my own red lines, those of someone with pacifist instincts but not ideologically so, who generally believes that resorting to arms at times can be legitimate and necessary. Is Syria the case? My argument has been that more could have been done earlier to prevent this escalation.
But, in line with my questioning mood, does this argument absolve us today from having a position on intervention? I think not. Pacifists accuse the interventionists of being hypocritical, of producing false arguments to justify their position and to mask other objectives. Is it not equally hypocritical to say that more could have been done earlier? The point is what is to be done now. Until Monday I felt that the argument that the current situation is a result of previous bad politics did not absolve me from having a position on the intervention. All the more, it does not absolve governments from having a more honest and clear policy, and it certainly does not absolve the EU from not having a unified position.
But on the morning of Monday 9 September the Italian journalist Domenico Quirico and Belgian academic Pierre Piccinin returned home after 5 months of captivity. They were held by jihadist rebel groups. Among Quirico’s first comments was one: “this is not the Syria of two years ago”. Piccinin, an expert of the Middle East, says that their capture occurred when he was researching the dynamics which had led the rebel groups to be taken over by the jihadists. The revolutionaries who started the Syrian Spring have been marginalised, this has been evident for months. The point is that they were pacific, and in the early months of the Syrian revolution their representatives travelled around Europe trying to get international support for their cause. They did not get it, were criticized for being divided, of not having a common platform, of not being sufficiently representative of Syrian society.
So, after all, it is legitimate to argue that more could have been done sooner. Rather than talk about the Responsibility to Protect, one should spend more time on the Responsibility to get involved politically, to take risks and support political and social groups who claim to be committed to political dialogue, and to make sure that all possible non-violent avenues have been thoroughly explored. I am not convinced that this has happened. Europe and the US have let other actors, some with vested interests in Syria, shape the context in which action was taken. As a consequence, in my view, there is no moral ground (nor clear strategic objective) for an intervention. Now, we can just hope that the other actors (all eyes are on Russia) can find an end to the carnage.