Syria: The West is Guilty

German professor of the Philosophy of Law got Syria right five years ago


Reinhard Merkel, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitschrift

How high can the cost of a “democratic revolution go? In Syria, the US and Europe are the arsonists of a catastrophe. There is no justification for this civil war.

The West, if this collective name be allowed, has been guilty of grave sins in Syria – not, as is often said, because it hesitated to support resistance to tyrannical rule, but on the contrary: because of its illegitimate transformation of this resistance into a murderous civil war, which it has enabled, subsidized, and operated. More than a hundred thousand people, including tens of thousands of civilians, have paid for this allegedly moral partisanship with their lives. And it will be much more if this dance of death ever comes to an end.

This strategy is a variant of what has been called “democratic interventionism” ever since the invasion of Iraq ten years ago: operating a regime change by military means for the purpose of establishing a democratic rule. In Iraq, the invaders did it by their own hand. The cause of the war, as we know, was altered without further ado: weapons or not – in any case, to free an oppressed people. This goal also justifies the attack.

The most reprehensible variety

It is a suggestive lowering of the legitimacy threshold for one’s own actions before the eyes of the world: We are not the ones who kill in Syria; we are only helping an oppressed people. Thus, an aura of morality can evidently be found.

What’s happening in Syria is a seemingly milder form of intervention, since it leaves the overthrow of the regime to internal opposition, which is only upgraded from the outside – and admittedly instigated from outside. In truth, it is the most despicable variety: not so much because, in addition to the killing business, it also puts the risk of getting killed on others. Rather, because it helps to unleash the ugliest, most devastating form of war: civil war.

In any case, the interventionists take over the alleged and absurd role of innocent people. It is a suggestive lowering of the legitimacy threshold for one’s own actions before the eyes of the world: We are not the ones who kill in Syria; we are only helping an oppressed people. Thus, an aura of morality can evidently be found. It is puzzling that this succeeds without significant contradiction. As far as I can see, the basic question has hardly been asked, let alone answered: the question of the legitimacy of the armed rebellion in Syria. At what degree of oppression can legitimate resistance to its rule pass to open civil war? And was that threshold reached in Syria when the riots began?

The costs in life and suffering

If that threshhold wasn’t reached, then heating up the rebellion from the outside was even more objectionable than this itself. It seems self-evident that legitimate internal resistance to a dictator like Assad always includes permission to use force. But this is wrong. At best, it would be debatable if only the relationship of the rebels to their oppressor and his power apparatus was involved. Then it would be all about a kind of collective self-defense, and their justification may, depending on the nature of the attacked dictatorship, be readily justifiable.

Since Aristotle, killing a tyrant has been dealt with in the political philosophy of right and wrong. But the assumption, that in a civil war the question of right and wrong arises only with regard to the parties to the conflict, misses the actual legitimation problem. The unleashing of widespread violence also and above all requires a justification vis-à-vis the non-participating fellow citizens. You may reject the uprising with good reasons, without being a partisan of the despot. Maybe they have women and children whose lives they would have to fear for in the Civil War.

Syrian refugee in Jordan: The costs in suffering of the insurgency are largely passed on to third parties. Is that justifiable?

Then they would not only have a right, but the moral duty to reject a rebellion that threatened their loved ones with death. Tens of thousands of women and children died in the Syrian civil war. What can justify the protagonists, in expecting such a sacrifice? The fatalities and the families of the dead?

The life and suffering costs of the Syrian uprising are essentially being passed on to third parties. Is this justifiable? We know quite a legal-ethical principle that can justify the imposition of compulsory solidarity victims for the purposes of third parties: that of the “aggressive” state of emergency, which is therefore called because it allows the costs of remediatind their own hardship to others against their will.

Of course, this can only be allowed within narrow limits. Probably one can call life under the Syrian dictator a kind of permanent emergency. But no matter how one determines the measure of fellow-feeling solidary, which may at most be imposed on uninvolved third parties, and how far it may go in war and civil war beyond what is permissible in a peaceful society, one thing certainly can not be imposed: the sacrifice of one’s own life.

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One should not ignore the question because one dislikes the answer
In another context, the American philosopher Robert Nozick writes: “One’s life is the only one he has.” That is the reason why nobody can be obliged to grant solidarity for foreign ends. Does not that exclude the possibility of justification for every violent uprising? Kant radically rejected every right to rebellion, albeit primarily for other, and hardly convincing, reasons. The answer depends on which concept of justification one applies. The American philosopher John Rawls sketched the idea of “impure”, “non-ideal” legitimacy in 1971 in his “Theory of Justice” and further developed it in his late work “The Right of the Peoples” (1999).

Without such a concession of “pure” reason to the normatively highly impure sphere of civil war, there will probably be no justification for almost any of its historical examples. In any case, there is no doubt that the threshold must be very high. Only in the rarest cases of extreme, perhaps genocidal, reign of terror should it unquestionably be crossed.

And it is also beyond doubt that the question of legitimacy should not be ignored because one dislikes the answer. Either the goal of the Syrian rebellion justifies the compulsory sacrifice of the lives of bystanders, who will have nothing of the hoped-for better future, or the rebellion itself is illegitimate and reprehensible.

International law does not help us here
Support and enablement from outside would certainly be much higher. That is the primary problem. One would have to face the Syrian discussion of the West instead of letting it disappear behind a jumble of secondary political calculations and unwashed sympathies for distant “freedom fighters.”

International law does not help us here. It is irrelevant to the question of a permit for civil war. Therefore, it does not contain any relevant norms, although for good other reasons, it in principle prohibits any military support for armed insurrections in foreign states. However, a reproach is to be made to political philosophy. Since Kant, political philosophy has strangely neglected the problem of when civil war can be justifiable.

Therefore, apart from tentative attempts, convincing proposals for a well-founded solution are missing today. This deficit is currently felt in the unfettered public talk about the Syrian disaster. Only the trumpeters (trumpethicists) of “Realpolitik” know as always. All these considerations are naive and life-blind; Bismarck already knew and so on. But only this objection is naive. Naïve is the idea that the stability of such a complex system as today’s world of states can be permanently secured by power, threat and violence, rather than by the stipulations of an international normative order, which is grounded in principles of global consensus.

On March 24, 2013, a detailed report appeared in the New York Times under the headline “Arms Airlift to Syrian Rebels expands – with CIA Aid.” This tracks more than 160 cargo flights with war weapons that have been regularly unloaded from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan since the beginning of 2012 at Esenboga airport in Turkey and transited across the border into Syria – all with logistical and other CIA aid. This shows, the newspaper soberly notes, that contrary to government statements, the United States has certainly helped its Arab allies “also in promoting the deadly side of the civil war.”

At the beginning of July, Obama’s public announcement, along with an obvious excuse, came that weapons would now be delivered directly to the rebels. That is certainly consistent. It is not any the less cynical. The extent of French and British aid to the “deadly side” of the conflict will be clarified by historians. That it remains below the US support is unlikely.

This is all bleak. And it becomes even bleaker, if one considers only the actual chances of success of a democratic interventionism, which pursues as in Syria its goal in the mode of incitement and promotion of a foreign civil war. The odds are, as we have long known, almost zero.
The reasons are not very mysterious. The reasons have been set out in studies on the chances of military forced government change. There have been around one hundred external coup attempts since the Napoleonic Wars worldwide, many of them democratic.

The main indicators of success are neither the power of the intervenor nor the measure of his efforts, but certain conditions in the target state itself: relative homogeneity of its population, no deep ethnic or religious conflicts, degree of urbanization, sufficiently functioning administration, historical experience with democratic institutions, economic prosperity the majority of society – in short: just about everything that is missing in Syria. The country is a model case that any form of democratic interventionism must fail.

One hundred thousand dead are too high a price for even a successful revolution.
If one adds that the regime change is to be enforced in the civil war, then this diagnosis intensifies to the hopeless. The years of cruelty, the mutual hatred unleashed, the countless sacrifices – all this will leave a deep wound that will not close in generations. None of the romantic expectations of a democratic, constitutional future, with which a good-faith public opinion in this country has transfigured the ambitions of the Syrian rebels, will be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. This is no longer dependent on the outcome of the killing and probably never depended on it.

This is the last element in the verdict on the armed Syrian uprising. The reasonably reasonable prospect of success of such an undertaking is more than just a pragmatic point of view. It is a genuine condition of its legitimacy. After all that can be said at the moment, it does not exist and never did exist for Syria. One hundred thousand dead are far too high a price for a successful democratic revolution. For an unsuccessful one, they are a political, ethical, human disaster. I do not believe that the future historiography will absolve the West from the charge of complicity.

Reinhard Merkel teaches Criminal Law and Philosophy of Law at the University of Hamburg.

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