By H.A. Hellyer
When tragedies and tribulations take place, the human impulse is to seek to assign blame. If one is fortunate, the law will intervene. If one is unfortunate, politics will.
In the Arab world, one is invariably unfortunate. While law establishes responsibility, the role of politics, unvaryingly, is simply to escape blame. But make no mistake – a price is invariably paid.
Alas, there are many examples to pick from. A prominently recent one in my view is the Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian territory of Gaza, occupied by Israel for decades, and under siege for years. All of that is illegal under international law- that shouldn’t be in any doubt. The only legal question, if we’re honest, is how many different parts of international law have been broken. Does the political responsibility for Gaza’s destruction, however, stop at Israel? It seems almost too obvious to state – but how can one absolve different international powers, first and foremost the United States? Is it truly possible for the U.S. to be an “honest broker” between the occupied and the occupier, when it arms the occupier – and continues to advocate doing so, even in the midst of a barrage that has resulted in some 1,800 lives, most of whom are civilians according to the United Nations? And while we have that discussion, Palestinian families in Gaza try to rebuild their lives – until the next time that they are bombarded, defenselessly, by a military might that so outstrips them, it sounds like an affront to the English language to call this “war,” in my view.
It isn’t over for the people of Gaza, of Syria, or of Libya. Astoundingly, there remain people in all three places that show, beyond all odds and rightful expectations, that they will not sacrifice their right to lives of dignity
Perhaps we ought to turn further north – and look at Syria. A revolutionary uprising, which has mutated into something far more ugly. The death toll in Gaza over three weeks is what Syrians often experience in a few days – and they’ve been suffering that for more than three years. Bashar al-Assad, who has been tagged the “butcher of Damascus,”would stand in the dock, probably along with the radical Islamists who would not exist except due to his policies. The uprising began peacefully – and then turned to the armed struggle when Assad forced that upon the people of Syria – and then the soil became fertile for radicals to make their mark on the revolution. But is it simply Assad that bears the blame for what Syria has now become, or some of his opponents in the radical Islamist camp as well? Can we pardon those states and paramilitary forces that provide him with support, such as Iran, Russia and Hezbollah? Or can we forget the international community, who de facto accepted that foreign intervention is wrong in Syria – but implicitly ignored that it already exists? Do we dare neglect to recall that inaction is also action by omission, and that we’ve long since betrayed the people of Syria to the worst of an array of tyrannies?
The international community cannot be absolved
Or, perchance, we look further west. The land of Libya is a country where three years ago, so many of her people looked at Egypt and Tunisia and decided they would not live under Qaddafi’s boot any longer. His gift to Libyans, which outlives him, was his systematic ruination of their society. The international community knew this when it intervened – but did little to account for it once Qaddafi’s regime was overthrown. We might say, the Libyans are responsible for their own mess, as Libya has thus turned out to be stuck in a quagmire. But, that’s just another way to absolve the international community of its responsibilities. The Arab world, of which Libya is an integral part, did little to hold the country together – just as they did little to save Benghazi from Qaddafi’s impending onslaught. The broader international community talked a good game about building Libya’s civil institutions up – but Libya today is more armed than it was three years ago and those weapons did not come from nowhere. As the world looks on in horror at the ISIS phenomenon, as it rears its ugly head in Iraq and Syria, it seems to forget how it started. It started because of inaction – and inaction is leading – or has lead – to a Libyan version of ISIS. And, again, we leave those whom we applauded a few years ago to the clutches of chaos and cruelty.
It isn’t over for the people of Gaza, of Syria, or of Libya. Astoundingly, there remain people in all three places that show, beyond all odds and rightful expectations, that they will not sacrifice their right to lives of dignity. But we should make no mistake – their losses will not be theirs alone. We all pay a price. This is the 21st century, and while we vaunt the nation-state, borders are no guarantee of containment. Neighboring states invariably pay a price the chaos they allow to fester on their margins – and those further away will pay the price in yet more waves of terrorism, as abhorrent ideologues use these catastrophes as recruitment tools.
This is not the first time the international community has shirked its responsibilities – and they won’t be the last. It is all well and good to decry the engagement of foreign powers in lands that are not their own – indeed, that instinct is often the right one. But the alternative to poor intervention is not simply desertion. Indeed, that alternative only results in further problems later down the road. This world is, for better or for worse, just too small to conceive otherwise.