Less than a week into a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Syria, the arrangement is already looking pretty shaky. The Syrian government has promised to pull its army back from major cities, but now seems to be reneging on that deal. But rather than castigating its motives, perhaps it might be a good time now to take a fresh look what exactly has been accomplished by the internationalization of the Syrian "problem."
I've been going to Syria for some years now, both as a journalist and an ordinary citizen, and it's been inspiring to see how the country has changed. Some of my friends are ordinary civilians; others are now involved in the motley collection of opposition groups that have emerged since the uprising began in March of last year. What's often lost in the account of crisis given by po-faced humanitarians, with their pictures of dead bodies and tales of indecipherable evil, is how inspiring the revolt originally was for many ordinary Syrians. Virtually all the people I know in Syria have changed their opinions radically in the last year, and their demands have grown bolder and more ambitious.
As spring 2011 gave way to summer and fall and the flagging Baathist regime moved to snuff out dissent, some opposition groups looked to the force of arms to protect their demonstrations and their communities. At around the same time, international efforts to apply pressure to the regime led to sanctions that virtually no one in Syria wants (even the Free Syrian Army), an ill-fated mission by Arab monitors that disappointed everyone, and now a U.N. initiative that has initially stemmed the daily round of killings, but failed to satisfy either the government or the opposition.
So what's going wrong? The problem, in my view, is that the tools of international law are a very blunt instrument with which to solve real problems of civil strife. In November, for example, I smuggled myself into Homs as the desperate opposition movement was beginning to turn to the Arab League to mediate in its conflict with an increasingly brutal regime. As the situation worsened, the daily demonstrations (I could still hear them breaking out in November along with the occasional crackle of sniper fire) were joined by armed militias that grew up to protect Sunni areas of the city. Then the geopoliticking began.
In December, the Syrian National Council seems to have made an orchestrated effort to turn Homs into a Syrian Benghazi -- the eastern Libyan city whose imminent destruction by Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces provided the catalyst that sparked the international intervention in Libya last year. The council spread stories in the international media, for example, suggesting that the Syrian Army had moved up reinforcements with which to strike the city, and that it had given the rebellious Homsies 72 hours to lay down their weapons or be killed. When I phoned a respected veteran activist in Homs, he told me that the charge simply wasn't true. Things were bad enough, he said, without having to make up scary stories. In retrospect, by leaning on precedents within international law rather than the force of its own movement, the exiled Syrian opposition seems to have aimed to exaggerate the civilian losses in the city into the claim of genocide in order to push buttons within the international community.
The United Nations bought it. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that "many voices are warning that a major assault" on Homs is about to begin, that a further military buildup had already begun. "I am not in a position to confirm those reports," she said, "but the prospect of such an attack is extremely alarming."
If there was a strategy to internationalize the conflict, however, it failed. The United Nations could do nothing, but the promise that it might may have put ordinary activists and Free Syrian Army rebels in the city at even greater risk. Many were led to believe that help was coming, when it most definitely wasn't.
The history of most humanitarian interventions in the last 15 years has been similar: By promising more safety than it can credibly deliver, the United Nations has often put the lives of those on the receiving end of its efforts in even greater danger, everywhere from Srebrenica to South Lebanon. By changing the incentives facing both parties to the conflict, the United Nations, at its worst, only makes their incentives more perverse -- and their negotiating positions even more intractable.