Punishing the innocent: Syria and the politics of symbolism

Simply bombing Damascus or Aleppo to assuage the conscience of the West that they ‘did something’ seems like the worst form of symbolic politics.

It’s not the only sensible thing Matthew Fitzpatrick had to say in an article at The Drum today.

He also argued the appropriate forum for judging (and, should the verdict be guilty, punishing) a war crime such as gassing one’s own people is the International Criminal Court.

It seems to me he’s blindingly right. Any other approach is not only wrong (and dangerous) in terms of process and precedent, but punishes the wrong people. However carefully planned and executed, military strikes would inevitably add to the woes of Syria’s long-suffering population. The argument “but how can we not respond to this terrible crime” therefore falls over at the first hurdle. First do no harm is sometimes a decent rule of thumb in international affairs as well.

In any case, punitive strikes would be action in a vacuum. There’s no structure within Syria capable of capitalising on them, even presuming the right targets were hit. The opposition forces are fragmented, at each other’s throats, and infested with radical jihadis. As Robert Fisk noted yesterday, “Does Obama know he’s fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side?”.

Truth be told, the blusterings coming out of the US, UK and France over recent days have been essentially incoherent. It makes it even more of a pleasure to see a growing group of UK parliamentarians actually doing their job: considering the evidence; thinking about potential consequences; and weighing up the true interests of their country.

For the moment, the heedless rush is faltering. More and more people seem to be recognising that waiting for the report from the UN inspectors mightn’t be a bad idea.

Still, with policy pronouncements (of a sort) being regularly tweeted by the US Ambassador to the UN, confidence in a sensible outcome needs to be carefully rationed.

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20 Responses to Punishing the innocent: Syria and the politics of symbolism

  1. Patrick says:

    The onion does it best, and covers both sides:

    More seriously, it seems to me that the lesson is that we should have tried to impose a no-fly zone much much earlier. I don’t know if that would have simply locked us into an escalating conflict, but it seems to me that it would have lessened some of the suffering we’ve seen since, and perhaps would have tipped the scales in favour of the rebels. Of course I don’t really know how much better that would be but I find it hard to imagine it could have been worse.

    • Ingolf says:

      It often does do it best and that first one was a beauty. Thanks.

      As for the more seriously side, I’m with DD; no good options, including the one “we’ve” been exercising for awhile. Far as I can make out, western policy incoherence in the Middle East is of long, but not good, standing.

  2. derrida derider says:

    Yes, sometimes you have to face the facts that there are simply no good options. In these circumstances the proven worst option is to start throwing bombs at people.
    Beware of the “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done” syndrome.

  3. Jim Rose says:

    Threatening to put assad on trial reduces his incentives to quit. Turning him into a cornered animal prolongs the war.

  4. weary says:

    Russian analysis of Syria seems relatively sane compared with the frothy-mouthed statements of most western politicians and media.


    Also, you may wish to see who is on the editorial board of this publication before condemning all Russian sources as propaganda.

    • Patrick says:

      Everything I’ve ever come across suggests that all Russian sources are propaganda.

      This suggests that there MAY be exceptions but since it serendipitiously accords with the party line it is weak evidence.

      Show me their endorsement of gay rights or the rule of law.

    • Ingolf says:

      A very reasonable overview, weary. Certainly better than much of what’s available.

      Unlike the US and the UK, Russia is at least behaving as a broadly rational actor on the international stage.

  5. Alan says:

    I agree that military strikes, in this case as in most, are not going to solve anything.

    I’m a tad surprised to read all about how these matters should go to the ICC. There is about as much prospect of Assad submitting himself to the ICC’s jurisdiction as there was of George Bush or John Howard doing so. I’d also contest that the ICC has jurisdiction, it seems to me a matter for the Security Council, although the council does have power to authorise the ICC prosecutor to investigate particular matters.

    Just for the record I’m not accusing any specific individuals of war crimes or crimes against humanity, merely pointing out that heads of state and government tend not to be eager to front up before an international court. Equally I’m not arguing that governments have any right to intervene without UN authority.

    • Ingolf says:

      Alan, you’re right to have doubts, I’m sure. The question of whether (and how) a matter like this should be brought before the ICC isn’t straightforward.

      Still, even though Syria isn’t a state party to the ICC, a UN Security Council referral would provide the necessary jurisdiction. That seems unlikely given China and Russia would be inclined to veto any such move but it’s not necessarily set in cement. There’s an interesting discussion about these matters here.

      In any event, I think Fitzpatrick’s intent was to flag the sort of channels that ought to be pursued rather than settle the details. That’s certainly true for me.

      • Alan says:

        Obviously we are agreed that in an ideal world all heads of state and government would be criminally responsible for the Rome Statute Article 5 offences.

        It’s pretty sad that the debate is about bombing Assad rather than setting in place a universal rule that would apply to all national leaders. It’s equally tragic that even the Rome Statute, while it includes the crime of aggression in Article 5, does not yet include a definition of aggression.

  6. conrad says:

    An alternative motivation for a US strike is that they basically have the monopoly on the best conventional weapons. If smaller states start using non-conventional weapons and get away with it, then it seems likely they would also start proliferating more. Since non-conventional weapons pack far more bang for the buck than conventional weapons, it means that the US will lose out on conventional weapon sales, and it would also mean that the power discrepancy between states that are well equipped with conventional weapons versus those poorer ones that begin to use non-conventional weapons will diminish. Since many of these poorer states are not aligned with the US, this is clearly bad for them also.

    • John Foster says:

      At last, someone who may have got to the nub of this matter. There is only muted comment in the US and UK on the fact that large numbers of women and children have died in Iraq, Afganistan and Syria because of poorly targeted ‘conventional’ weapon attacks. However, such deaths are an outrage when they are due to gassing. Not only is gas competitive with conventional weaponry, as Conrad points out, but the visibly horrific nature of mass gassing deaths makes war, in general, repugnant, which is not good for weapon sales. But, of course, bombing the perpetrators (and yet more women and children) is good for weapon sales. Of course, this is a very cynical (economic?) view of things and I really hope it is not true. So I welcome refutations.

  7. Tel says:

    It should require a full referendum for any military campaign that is not both immediate and defensive in nature. If Western aggression in Syria went to the vote it would lose by about 70% in Australia, UK and the USA.

    • Ingolf says:

      You’re right, Tel, it’s long past time for warmaking powers to be severely reigned in.

      A referendum is an interesting idea but I’d also be happy enough with a requirement for a supermajority in Parliament (say 2/3, for example).

      • Tel says:

        Either or both would satisfy me.

        Look, I can perfectly understand the need for national defence which may need to be deployed at short notice. There’s nothing wrong with standing orders that say the presence of foreign troops or agents inside Australian sovereign territory automatically triggers a military response.

        This is not a case of national defence, it is a case where far away from Australia, on the other side of the world, our actions may or may not be useful at some unknown time in the future. There’s nothing immediate about it, none of the parties concerned have treaties with us, and we don’t really know which side we support, if any. The action we do take will have highly uncertain outcomes.

        Leave ’em to it. Not my business to get involved in. Obama can find some other way to stimulate his economy.

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