The pictures of the slaughter of civilians in Syria have provoked frustration and revulsion around the world. There is an understandable feeling that something must be done. When even a mild UN Security Council resolution was vetoed by Russia and China there were increased calls for international intervention.
Steven A Cook writing in The Atlantic on 17th January argued for military intervention and Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center commented that he hoped the article would be influential. I responded via Twitter that I hoped not, and that I could not see how air strikes would make a terrible situation better. Steven A Cook responded to me with: “how do you claim to defend human rights, but refuse to consider the possibility of action to protect humans?”It is a fair question. I am not a pacifist and I think there are times when international military intervention can be justified. With some reservations I supported the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Benghazi (although I suspect the mission creep towards NATO led regime change will eventually be seen to have been counter-productive, and not only in Moscow and Beijing). It is, however, very difficult to see how any simple military action could produce any quick reduction in the killings of civilians in Syria. And that is before we contemplate the likely repercussions inside Syria and across the region.
So what should we do? The first thing to say is that options are more limited because of previous inconsistency in support of human rights in Syria and around the world. It would be easier to make the case to those responsible for ordering brutal repression in Syria that they would be held personally accountable if we applied such standards consistently.
The image of Tony Blair sucking up to Gadaffi was one of the most stark examples of Western weakness, but the UK continues to back killers and torturers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Not to mention the failure to condemn unequivocally the killings of civilians in Gaza.
And what are we pro-actively doing about the brutal repression in Sudan. Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his crimes in Darfur and yet he continues to use military force against civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The West and the rest of the world seem to have grown tired of Sudan after the independence of South Sudan. Maybe there are now fewer christian fundamentalist votes at play in the US.
There are things we should be doing in Syria and Sudan, in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The following is a not exclusive list:
1) Provide practical and political support to peaceful human rights defenders and independent journalists working at the local and national level. The biggest impulse for change comes from those working within any community. Often they face imprisonment, torture and worse because they dare to speak out for truth and justice. Meet with them, support them consistently, speak out when they are persecuted and increase the political costs of repressing them.
Syrian human rights defenders are suddenly flavour of the month but they have received little support or help over the last decade in spite of the brutal repression in their country. Western Governments over several years supported efforts in Bahrain to marginalise more critical voices and support so called moderates in a catastrophically unsuccessful strategy.
2) Support the International Criminal Court and the principle of national (where possible) and international accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. No Western Government proposes more lenient sentences for murderers in their own country on the basis that it might be a better strategy to achieve peace. Prosecution is only a deterrent if we are consistent that we will relentlessly pursue the guilty even when that is difficult. It is also morally right and increases Western soft power. The ICC has made a good start in spite of many difficulties but it needs stronger and more consistent political backing.
3) Seriously target the financial resources of corrupt dictators. It is ridiculous that moves were only made against the billions stashed abroad by Ben Ali and Mubarak after they were toppled. Where did those responsible for action against money laundering and international crime think they had obtained wealth on such a scale.
Western Governments should introduce a legal framework whereby the illegal profits of corrupt rule are clearly identified as criminal assets that can be sequestered and those individuals and financial institutions involved in the wealth management of criminals should themselves be prosecuted. It would also concentrate the mind if new democratic Governments could renounce national debts where it could be shown that minimal due diligence by the lenders would have shown that the borrowing Government was corrupt.
4) Get more realistic about realpolitik. A succession of corrupt dictators have played Western leaders for fools. It is sometimes necessary to deal with de facto rulers even when they are corrupt and brutal dictators (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, North Korea) but that does not mean they should be fawned over. There is a need to make a greater public distinction between democratic and accountable Governments and those that are not.
5) Stop selling weapons and security equipment including surveillance technology to dictators. At the best you will look be discredited when it is used against civilians (as it will inevitably). At the worst you will be complicit in repression. And it is a bit unconvincing to criticise the Russians for arming the Syrians when you have armed the Saudis (and paid bribes for the privilege into the bargain).
Do all of the above and in the medium term it will make a difference. In the short term, frustrating and sad though it may be, the only people who can make a real difference in Syria are the Syrians.