On December 13, Syrian government forces defeated rebels in the city of Aleppo after four years of fighting. A ceasefire was announced to allow civilians and rebels to evacuate, but the Syrian government resumed bombardment of eastern Aleppo on December 14. The death toll in the siege of Aleppo has risen over 30,000, many more have fled as refugees, and pro-government forces have deliberately targeted civilians with barrel bombs and cluster munitions. Ten observations on these events follow.
1. The international system under the United Nations has failed yet again. Just as it has in many other instances of democide, the UN Security Council failed to condemn the actions of the Assad regime. Once again, the ostensible purpose of international law, to protect civilians from atrocities that “shock the conscience of humanity,” was ignored. This is because Russia is involved on Assad’s side and has veto power in the UNSC, which it has used to block all resolutions against the situation in Syria.
2. There is an irreducible anarchy between sovereigns. The logical proof of this is rather simple. Suppose that there is not an irreducible anarchy between sovereigns. This means that there is a law governing sovereigns. This requires that someone be able to enforce this law against the sovereigns. But a sovereign is defined as having supreme power or authority, which means that no one is able to enforce a law against a sovereign. This is a contradiction, so the supposition is false. Therefore there is an irreducible anarchy between sovereigns.
Practically, this means that the UN fails because it must; it is logically impossible for it to succeed, as it is not a sovereign entity. The UN is incapable of imposing anything upon a state without the help of other states. Another important point is that there is no such thing as international law because there is no international enforcer of law. (That being said, the alternative is likely worse, in that a global government would be even less accountable than the nation-states of today.)
3. The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. This will be true regardless of the system of governance in use, but the current system empowers far more abuses than would any system other than a centralized global omnipotent state. The only answer to this problem is the elimination of weakness, which will either be achieved by the weak strengthening themselves by acquiring and maintaining means of force sufficient to deter the strong or by the strong exterminating the weak. So far, we have seen far too much of the latter and not nearly enough of the former.
4. There was nothing that America could have done to prevent this. Many Americans are left wondering if there was any intervention that could have been successful. Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ A no-fly zone would not have stopped Assad’s ground forces, as they know that defeat means death at the hands of opposition forces. Enforcing such a policy with Russian aircraft involved could have escalated tensions with the Kremlin up to the sort of nuclear exchange feared during the days of the Soviet Union. Arming moderate factions has a terrible track record, as more radical factions defeat them and take the arms for themselves. Invasion also has a terrible track record, as shown by the failed efforts to nation-build in Iraq and Afghanistan. UN sanctions were vetoed by Russia, but sanctions are not very effective anyway. This leaves no good options for intervening.
5. When there is no one worthy of support, support no one. The atrocities of the Assad regime and their allies are well known. But those who would take over in the wake of his defeat are no better. There are a multitude of small groups involved in the war, but the only forces with enough might to govern all of Syria are Islamists of various types, such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. ISIS is well-known for human rights abuses, and the Syrian opposition has also committed its fair share. With this and the previous point in mind, the best course of action for Westerners is to sit back and watch enemies of liberty kill each other.
6. There is no such thing as non-lethal aid. Military intervention in Syria beyond limited airstrikes or special operations has never been popular with the American people, but non-lethal, humanitarian aid is viewed more favorably. But there is an economic fallacy being advanced by both sides of mainstream politics which applies to this case. Any organization has a total operating cost, which we may call C, and a total income, which we may call I. At issue here is the income from a particular source, which we may call S. Regardless of how S itself is allocated, the very presence of S means that the remainder of the total income, equal to I minus S, will be allocated differently than it would be in the absence of S. In other words, taxpayer funding for a non-controversial portion of an organization means that the organization can spend less of its non-taxpayer funding on that portion, thereby freeing up resources that the organization can now use for a more controversial activity.
In the case of Syrian opposition forces, money that they do not have to spend on food, medicine, etc. is money that they are now able to spend on armaments. The practical upshot is that there is no such thing as non-lethal aid to an organization that conducts lethal operations, and that economic and political commentators should take this into account.
7. President Obama’s red line was a mistake, no matter what he would have done afterward. In August 2012, Obama warned that Assad should not move or use biological or chemical weapons, and that doing so would “change his calculus” on whether to intervene. As terrible as the use of such weapons is, there was and is no effective method of intervention beyond limited strikes on the chemical weapons themselves. But drawing the red line and watching indifferently as it was crossed was worse than doing nothing, as it sent a message that American leaders are untrustworthy and do not need to be taken seriously.
8. This issue likely sealed the fate of the Gary Johnson presidential campaign. In a September 8 interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mike Barnicle asked Johnson about Aleppo. Johnson completely blanked out on the issue. At the time, he was hovering around 9 percent in the polls and needed to reach 15 percent to gain access to the debates. This gaffe marked the beginning of his gradual decline from 8.8 percent on September 7 to the 3.3 percent of the vote he received on November 8. Attempts were made to defend his gaffe by claiming that Johnson could not bomb other countries like major-party presidents do if he did not know about them, but these rightly rang hollow. It is one thing to withdraw from foreign entanglements, but quite another to have no idea what is happening.
9. This problem is the result of Western meddling. Syria was a colony of France from 1920 to 1946. At the beginning of this time, Mandatory Syria was divided into six states: Greater Lebanon (now Lebanon), Sanjak of Alexandretta (now part of Turkey), the State of Aleppo, the State of Damascus, the Alawite State, and the Jabal al-Druze State. This arrangement kept opposing factions in their own territories, but France had combined the latter four by the end of 1936. These factions fought for control, resulting in a large number of military coups and attempted coups from 1945 to 1970, ending only when Hafez al-Assad was able to rule strongly enough to suppress dissent. After his death in 2000, his son Bashar succeeded him. In the Arab Spring protests of 2011, Assad’s rule was challenged by various factions which sought to remove him from power, leading to the Syrian Civil War. But if France had not tried to combine disparate peoples under one state and had instead left the four Syrian states separate, this bloody conflict could have been prevented. Bashar al-Assad, if he had come to power at all in this alternate timeline, would only be the ruler of a small part of western Syria. The rest of the country would have been ruled more locally and probably less oppressively by governments of their own people.
10. What we are witnessing in Syria is the true nature of the state. Governments do not maintain rule by divine right or popular consent; they do it by murdering anyone who dares to challenge their power, and even some who do not. Governments murdered 262 million of their own citizens in the 20th century, and if Aleppo is anything to go by, the 21st century is not off to a good start. One may object that not all governments have done such things to their own people in time memorial, or even ever, but that is not the point. The point is that all of them would if faced with a sufficiently powerful popular insurgency. The effect of power upon a ruler is intoxicating and addicting, much like substance abuse. Those who enjoy the power, wealth, and fame of being part of the ruling class will react with the utmost hostility toward any threat to their means of rule. The fear of reprisals by the people against the rulers should the regime fall coupled with the potential of having to produce rather than plunder for a living provides them all the motivation they need to violently crush rebellions. The tragedy of Aleppo, Homs, and other Syrian rebel strongholds is just the latest in a long line of murderous rampages by the ruling classes.