Peace or Justice in Syria?

Let’s follow up on last week’s post about the conflict in Syria. I briefly discussed France’s decision to launch air strikes against IS targets; the following day, we learned that Russia has entered the fray and begun bombing Syria, too. Predictably, the US reaction has been quite negative. The Pentagon asserted that the strategy was “doomed to failure.” There also seems to be some confusion over whether the Russian strikes are targeting IS specifically or anti-Assad forces in general. The New York Times reported on October 1 that Russia’s targets included at least one of the rebel groups trained by the CIA (remember them from our discussion last week?). American officials maintain that the strikes targeted rebel groups fighting government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally.

The negative reaction from the United States is no surprise—after all, we want to be the only ones running around bombing the bad guys whenever we feel like it. And apparently we think that funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and military training into the conflict (the U.S. plan to date) is acceptable, but directly and openly using force to influence the outcome of the conflict is not.

But I digress. John Kerry has said that the United States is open to working with Russia on ending the conflict, but only “under amenable terms,” which presumably means some type of negotiated settlement preferred by the United States.  I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces by Richard K. Betts, “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention.”[1] It was written during the Balkan crises of the 1990s, but it is as relevant today as it was then. Betts argues that, although justice and peace are desirable, they don’t always coincide. If your primary goal is peace, i.e., an end to violence, you may have to accept a peace that is imperfect from the standpoint of justice; conversely, the pursuit of justice and fairness can hinder efforts to end violent conflict. It might offend our sensibilities, but if our primary goal is ending violence, then we should back the stronger side in the conflict and enable it to defeat the weaker.  What usually happens, however, is that we intervene on the side of the weak, which prolongs the fighting unless the intervention is backed with enough force that it can overwhelm the capabilities of all the belligerents.

This may shock and offend the well-informed American reader, in part because much of the rhetoric attached to American foreign policy these days asserts that the United States is omnipotent and should be able to impose its will on any and all outcomes in international politics. This in turn leads us to expect that we should be able to force a “just” solution to the fighting in Syria. Given the amount of resources the United States is willing to commit (and I think we have already committed too many), the truth is that we are long past the point where we can achieve both peace and justice in Syria. Given a choice between the two, the more humane option and the one most likely to minimize the total suffering of the Syrian people may be to seek peace, even a peace that is imperfect and unjust. Assad is a nasty guy and his regime has done some terrible things (and probably will again), but facilitating “regime change” there would leave us with a power vacuum and no end to IS atrocities. Russia’s effort to reinforce Assad’s power and to help him wipe out opposition forces may not fit neatly with our ideals, but the alternative—a continuation to the violence and/or capture of the state apparatus by IS forces—would probably be worse.

[1] Foreign Affairs 73, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 1994): 20-33.