Insufficient Funds: Political Capital and Syria

I’ve steered clear of reading too much on Syria because the situation is too depressing –  there is little hope to be found and confident that the prospects for intervention is nil, for a variety of reasons. Today I came across one of the more interesting takes on why there won’t be an intervention. There’s a new UN Dispatch piece by Mark Leon Goldberg where he makes the case that the west’s venture in Libya, somehow depleted its political capital. This capital was spent nudging BRIC states and anyone else with reservations(Germany), to abstain from voting UN resolution 1973. The remaining political capital makes it difficult to pass anything in the UN regarding NATO and the responsibility to protect Syria.

I would like to believe this, because in doing so, I would have to assume that the UN is a legit check on American hegemony. This scenario also implies that the current political capital account of the west is at an all-time low. The idea of an attempt to perform a regime change on the piddling state of Syria and they’re experiencing the humbling account status of insufficient funds? It also allows for the argument that the west are good world police and the bad non-western states would be sympathetic to a “stop snitching” campaign, possibly in fear of being next to get justice. If I am to believe the west lacks the political capital to perform some type of NATO backed regime change in Damascus, it would be under two conditions.

First, I would have to believe the west is even interested in a new quagmire. The words “boots on the ground” needs out of Susan Rice’s mouth, because that is a must. Anything less than boots on the ground does not get the job done. The requirement of the west’s physical presence on Levantine soil is just one of many differences from Libya. The reality on the ground is that there is that the Free Syria Army is an army in name only.  How do we provide air support to a group of guys at the mercy of a curfew? Assad still enjoys a monopoly on the use of force within his country. Unlike Libya, there are no troops advancing across Syria or even a group of formidable troops simply being stationary. Syria also doesn’t border temporarily benign states overwhelmed with the spirit of revolution. It does touch the NATO member state of Turkey, but to ask for the support of Iraq after troops just left at Baghdad’s request, good luck. There’s also the issue of a power vacuum and the possibly tragic fate of the Alawites in the  post Assad Syria. This is hardly a full assessment, I’m just throwing shit out that should seem obvious. What nation would look at this situation and think it worth the trouble just because of the responsibility to protect? The United States led from behind on the sure-thing of Libya, that was a good deal. To make something happen with Syria, US would certainly be required to lead; however, the west has shown very little interest in intervention in Syria, for these reasons, and dozens more.

The second condition is understanding that the political capital needed for regime change in Syria is a massive amount. Even if the west never bothered in Libya, the price continues to be astronomically high and rightfully so. An exhaustive amount of soft and hard power comes into play when removing a man who claims to be ready for reform. A man who, with the help of a minority(better than nothing), has virtually full control of his state. Homs enjoys nowhere near the level of autonomy that Benghazi possessed. This is what makes intervention in Syria, war with Syria. It is not simply an act of war in providing the revolutionary forces with arms and air support. Declaring war with Syria does not follow the US policy of “smart power” that Hillary Clinton intends to use. Foreign ministries world-wide understand Assad’s current level of control; to recognize anyone else in Syria is a potentially stupid move that can haunt diplomatic relations for years to come. Going to war with current regime in Syria is a major purchase, and if  the west lacked capital from anything it is the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not a collateral victim of Libya, that some have claimed


“Syria is the collateral victim of Libya the same way that Rwanda was the collateral victim of Somalia,”  said Jean Marie Guehenno, the longtime head of UN Peacekeeping.  In other words, just as the Black Hawk Down made western powers wary of  even contemplating a humanitarian intervention in Rwanda three years later, the steamrolling of non-western interests in the execution of the Libyan intervention is coloring Russia, China other non-western powers’ approach to Syria.  From their perspective, they just don’t want to get played like that again.


This is a really interesting way to look at a failure in R2P. To think that the West would have helped Rwanda if it didn’t spend political capital elsewhere.  Some call this catastrophic failure a result of the Somalia syndrome. I can understand how a policy maker made that connection of failure in Somalia- to the decision to ignore a crisis elsewhere within that period of time. However fucked up it may be. How does the same mode of thinking apply when NATO has found recent success in Libya? I would imagine that the closer you are to the Middle East(emotionally) the more likely you are to call what’s happening in Syria a large humanitarian crisis. The Somalia Syndrome apprehension comes from the blow-back of intervening militarily to the crisis. In this case – the international force is considered needed to ensure the safety of internally displaced persons, ethnic groups at risk of pogrom, the starving, etc amid chaos. This is not the issue with Homs. The scale of the crisis isn’t large enough when you consider how much of it could be avoided. Yes, I’m talking about tucking your tail in and running, shutting down shop, obeying curfew and being subservient to the state once more. The people of Somalia and Rwanda never had this option. The people of Libya lost this option when Gadaffi was considered to be closing in on Benghazi for a massacre. A stable, business as usual approach is still an option for many Syrians. How horrible that sounds is not lost on me. My point in saying that is explaining how the Somalia Syndrome does not apply to Syria. The statement by Jean Marie Guehenno does not stand after minor blogger scrutiny.

It’s narratives like that helping maintain a status quo that would allow for the misunderstanding of the world’s response to crises. The heavy handed hegemonic do gooder and its subalterns fighting the good fight, coming up short in convincing evil states like Russia and China to allow them to save everyone. It is not national interests keeping us from tearing Assad limb from limb, it’s actually Germany! Nein! Nein! Nein!


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