Only Human

As a columnist who writes exclusively on MENA (Middle East/North Africa), I’m just going to state the obvious: I don’t usually end up analyzing sunshine and rainbows. At the end of the day, much of what desperately deserves the attention of BPR’s readers are the human rights violations, political stagnation, and meaningless violence that are now unfortunately so prevalent across MENA. This is not to say that I purposefully highlight turmoil in the region (as per my past accusations of Western media), and I discuss positive developments when relevant and significant. However, almost as dangerous as focusing on the negative is falsely emphasizing the positive. This is because coverage of positive events and trends in the region frequently fails to contextualize the developments as part of the larger regional narrative. This phenomenon has recently risen to the forefront in the cases of foreign intervention in Syria and Mali.

It has been almost two years since the now-raging civil war in Syria began, and the prospect of foreign intervention has been a concern for almost as long. Not many would say that the decision to intervene should be an easy one. Notwithstanding the estimated number of Syrian deaths – upwards of 60,000, according to a UN account issued earlier this month – and the atrocious nature of the massacres perpetrated by regime forces, there are reasons why the US has not intervened, neither unilaterally nor with the backing of an international coalition. These mitigating factors are both external (for example, Russia and China’s resistance to a multilateral response) and internal (i.e. the worryingly fragmented and violent nature of the Syrian opposition forces). To make a long story short, there is no easy solution foreign actors can make to the problem in Syria. Consequently, the official US response has essentially been limited to a (problematic) recognition of the opposition coalition and covert arms provision to the rebels, actions which fall very short of intervention. The US does not trust the opposition forces enough to put deploy troops on their behalf, but rather than limiting its role in the conflict to providing humanitarian aid for the suffering civilian population, it is perpetuating the violence by supplying them with weaponry. If you ask me, it seems that the Obama administration needs to sort out its priorities.

And the US isn’t the only major power acting inconsistently on this conflict. Russia has continuously shot down UN efforts and Security Council resolutions against Assad (most recently a motion for the International Criminal Court to investigate Syrian war crimes) in an effort to protect its national interests in Syria. But several days ago, it closed its consulate in Damascus and began to make noise about evacuating any Russian citizens left in the country. The reason, as one might suppose, is not that the Russians have finally realized the dangerous nature of Assad’s regime and are taking steps to undermine him. Rather, Russian diplomats have decided that Assad’s end is nigh and are intervening on behalf of their own citizens because they fear what will happen when the rebels take over. This indicates (if it weren’t clear before) that the Syrian conflict is only of concern to the Russians insofar as it affects their own nationals.

In other words, it doesn’t seem like foreign intervention is in the cards for Syria anytime soon. But what does this have to do with the recent events in Mali?

Let’s take a look at the history of this conflict. Early last year, Tuareg rebels joined with Islamist forces using weapons seized during the downfall of the Qadhafi regime in Libya, and took control of areas of northern Mali. While alarmed, both France (the former colonial power) and the US were wary of accusations of neo-imperialism and reluctant to intervene. Instead, the French began training African forces with the goal of eventually (as in, this fall) wresting power from the Islamists. Rather than conforming to France’s plan and waiting to be attacked, however, the Islamists began to advance on the capital city of Bamako several weeks ago. And to the French, the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Bamako was much more serious than their activities in the north, because in the north there are Malians and in the capital there are French citizens.

In panic, France sent forces to aid the Malians in pushing the Islamists back north – forces that were airlifted by the US, which also appears to have abandoned its worries about intervention out of concern for the plight of Western citizens. And apparently, even Russia has now offered to help the French get troops and supplies to the Malians. Media outlets everywhere are emphasizing the positive reception of the foreign troops in Mali, and lauding the role played by France and the US as an example of successful intervention. But the message is clear: under the guise of respect for sovereignty and multilateralism, these great powers are ignoring the plights of suffering populations where it does not serve their national interests.

If it is not too grandiose to address several powerful countries (namely Russia, France, and the US) at once, my point is this: don’t you dare do nothing for the Syrian people and try to make up for it somewhere else. I am not saying that the fact that Obama’s hands seem to be tied in Syria should preclude him from intervening elsewhere. But I do take issue with governments and the media using their role in one conflict to save face in another. I mean, really. Things have reached such a fever pitch in Syria that students in Aleppo are being blown up while taking their exams and no one knows which side is responsible. There have even been allegations (though yet unproven) that Assad’s regime is using chemical weapons, namely sarin gas, against civilians. It is understood that the factors preventing the US from intervening in Syria are not present in Mali. But France and the US took action in Mali only when the threat came to Western citizens.

I understand that the officials of these governments need to be practical. They are, after all, only human – they can’t just intervene wherever there is a problem, and they do have to take national interests into account. But what I can’t understand or tolerate are the inconsistency and falsity currently pervading discourse on Western intervention. The civilian populations in Syria and Mali are also only human, and if Western governments aren’t intervening on their behalf, they shouldn’t be celebrating their role in foreign intervention at all.