Seen and Heard: Sven Spengemann, Transformations in the Middle East & North Africa

Freshta Raoufi

On what premise do we intervene in a state where spiraling violence is claiming the lives of thousands of innocent people caught in the midst of a civil war sustained by superior powers?

On October 11, 2012 Sven Spengemann, a UN constitutional expert who has worked with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, spoke at the School of Public Policy and Governance on the current state of implicit engagement in Syria and the moral imperatives to intervene.  Spengemann structured his arguments around four main themes. The interplay of larger forces in Syria and the power dynamics behind such influences—that countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia have their own agendas in this bloody battle. The security impact Syria poses to the region, as there is substantial evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction within the country. How the forthcoming political transition will impact the Syrian economy, citizenship, and minority rights. And the humanitarian relief that is needed to combat rising civilian deaths, the disproportionate impact of the conflict on women and children, and the thousands of refugees fleeing the country.

Spengemann focused on the moral policy challenges that require greater attention from the international community.  Two strategies of intervention were discussed: a top-level intervention that is strictly based on the directions provided by the UN Security Council, and intervention by collaboration, meaning creating a coalition between countries—however the potential legitimacy of such a coalition is debatable.

Should states stand up and intervene based on the responsibility to protect doctrine? As the price of inaction rises, a moral imperative to intervene in Syria becomes critical.  The R2P doctrine has been blocked by Russia and China in the security Council. As an ally of the Syrian Government, Russia recently transported radar parts to the al-Assad regime.  The U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nula called Moscow’s policy of supporting the Syrian president “morally bankrupt.” Russia also has arms contracts with Syria, which further complicates the dynamics. The UN Security Council members, having the responsibility for global piece and security, should not be aiding and abetting the Assad regime.

More than 9000 people have been killed in a year of turmoil and unrest in Syria while NATO has been reluctant to react or provide a resolution to the matter. This can be compared to Libya where approximately 1000 were killed and NATO imposed a no-fly zone in a matter of 32 days after the protests began. Why is it that Libya received international attention and assistance in such a short time span? It can be argued that Libya was a relatively low-risk venture and did not have a string of strategic complications, ultimately making action easier to execute. Thus, we can argue that the use of the responsibility to protect doctrine is contingent on the intersection of interests and values of individual states.  Moral reasons to intervene are not simple and clear cut.

How can we stop war on humanity in Syria when there are so many risks involved in intervening? One aspect of the Arab spring I find really interesting is the collective decision-making and assistance of individuals across states. Greater networks have been created across state borders to help spread the cause and facilitate action amongst an interested populous.  Nationality is exempted in this time of need and experiences are shared across borders to enhance the organization of the rebel forces. Proponents of regime change are blind to nationality.  Individuals are organized around a shared action to dismantle the Syrian regime.  Fighters from the Libyan rebel forces have joined in with Syrian rebel forces to bring real change in their countries.  It is fascinating to see the collective action taken here for reasons based on humanitarian assistance and cooperation.  It is not known yet exactly how many Libyan rebels are assisting the Syrian movement; nonetheless it is apparently a rising phenomenon that is especially relevant in the context of intervention.

There are multiple forces at play when explaining the lack of intervention in Syria. As argued by Spengemann, humanitarian relief, political transition, and issues of global security are at the forefront of this conflict and the question of how and why to intervene. The responsibility to protect doctrine is very difficult to implement in the case of Syria as both greater political will is necessary and it is difficult to determine if intervention has a reasonable prospect of success.  Human life and the precarity of Syrians’ lives should be considered first and foremost.  Yet, the implications of intervention in Syria are exceedingly complicated.

Freshta Raoufi is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  She also holds a HBA degree in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto.  She has worked with many organizations including the Afghan Women’s Organization, advocating to create programs where women can become independent economic agents.  Her interests surround the topics of immigration policy, international development, and women’s economic development in Third World countries. 

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