The conundrum remains. When a vicious government assaults its own population in Syria, what can the rest of the world do?
In the US, there is mounting debate about whether to intervene. This week, US Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain argued forcefully for US military involvement. Last year, it’s reported that Hillary Clinton and General David Petraeus, when he was head of the CIA, advocated sending weapons. The White House apparently resisted.
The new Obama administration is ramping up its non-military support for the rebels: John Kerry has announced $60m in direct aid for the rebels, and there are reliable reports that the US is covertly training rebel groups in using anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems (the latter, in particular, could make a significant difference).
At the same time, the dilemmas of intervention have multiplied. This week, a senior US general said that American understanding of the rebel groups on the ground was “opaque” a year ago; today, he said, it is worse. No wonder. The proliferation of armed groups is bewildering. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has a comprehensive and accurate picture of them.
Even the Free Syrian Army, preferred by outsiders as a more secular and cohesive force, is itself an agglomeration of armed groups – at best, only loosely cooperating. Some observers believe that the FSA is united in name only, a label primarily for the benefit of the outside world. And, of course, most concerning for the US and the west is the rise of Islamist groups, especially those connected to militant Sunni groups from Iraq – and to al-Qaida, in particular.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has collected evidence of atrocities committed by both rebels and government forces in Syria. But the regime is using ever more brutal and indiscriminate methods, including – reportedly – chemical weapons, to attack the rebels and kill its own people. This cannot be ignored.
So, I propose a new paradigm of intervention, one that transcends the binary conundrum of doing nothing or all-out military intervention. Many are aware of the seminal work of Gene Sharpe (pdf) in propagating techniques of internal nonviolent resistance against dictatorship. His work is now supplemented by the research and training of other advocates of nonviolence, including Canvas, Waging Nonviolence and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
But for those outside the country, a workshop in New York recently brainstormed a much richer toolbox of techniques that both governments and individuals can employ. In recent years, researchers like David Cortright and George Lopez have done important research on which sanctions work (targeted, narrowly focused the leadership, sustained by deliberate effort) and which don’t (comprehensive, indiscriminate measures that harm the civilian population).
Global interconnectedness and information now make it possible to trace the supply chains for Assad’s weapons and support: those chains can be disrupted, as Human Rights First has argued. New technology now offers a much greater range of electronic and internet-based tools to interfere with and disrupt regime operations.
This work should be brought together to construct new strategies – a new paradigm, in fact – of nonviolent intervention. Rather than wasting money on already outdated weapons like the F-35 fighter, perhaps the Pentagon could invest a tiny part of these expenditures in a cross-services division devoted to learning about and, when appropriate, deploying these nonviolent weapons for circumstances such as Syria’s today. The need could hardly be more urgent.