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In one of St. Augustine’s observations (and there were many on the subject), the absence of morality among states would simply make them aggrandized bandits legitimised by rules of plunder. The Syrian conflict, with bloodied players both internal and external, is demonstrating this sad rule. Conventions heeding the consequences of force have been abandoned.
Foreign policy by the gun (and the bomb) is a gamble when initiated without direct provocation. Suggestion is enough. The attacks by Israel on Syrian targets ostensibly to stop disrupt missile shipments showed again how the moral dimensions of the conflict taking place is not merely murky but nigh obliterated. One might use an old expression Napoleon’s chief of police Joseph Fouché is said to have made on the execution of Louis Antoine, Duke of Enghien – this was worse than a crime, but a mistake.
For one thing, it has pushed the regime of Bashar al-Assad further into the eager and warming arms of Iran and Hezbollah. While the relationship is no secret, the titillation was hardly needed. In Assad’s words to Al-Akhbar daily on Thursday, he claimed that, “We have decided that we must advance toward them and turn into a resistance nation like Hezbollah [did in Lebanon], for the sake of Syria and future generations” (Jerusalem Post, May 10). The new level of cooperation entailed that the regime would “give them everything.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was cooing with satisfaction. “We are ready to receive any sort of physical weaponry, even if it is going to disturb the balance [in the region].” All sides in the region are up for a good bit of unbalancing as the situation stands.
The standard response from Israeli authorities is that the attacks were designed to stop ballistic missiles from falling into the hands of Hezbollah. This reaction was odd to begin with, given that Israel’s missile defence establishment has made it clear that, should militants ever use the Fateh-110- weapons, they would be made short work of (Real Clear Politics, May 8). In the words of the former director of the Israel Defence Organisation, Arieh Herzog, “We are now able to cope with all the missiles that are threatening Israel right now, including the longer-range missiles in Iran and in Syria.”
At work here is a calculus that may be out of all strategic kilter to the psychology that drives it. Outgoing Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barack has made no bones about the position that Israel will “coerce” Iran into not obtaining a nuclear option, though coercion when it comes from an Israeli weapon tends to be pretty violent. “During the coming year and hopefully before they reach what I have called a ‘zone of immunity’ – a point at which Israeli airstrikes couldn’t meaningfully hinder Iranian nuclear work – Iran will be coerced into putting an end to it this way or another way.” As for Syria, coercion is automatic.
This charmingly dangerous route is indicative of how credible the missile defense alternative would be. Israeli confidence is largely baked by the Arrow-2 system, though any such system is imperfect. The result is a dual narrative of Israeli invincibility even in the face of permanent vulnerability. The logic of Middle East politics again moves in its perverse circle.
Then comes the other absurd dimension here – the relativism that has fast engulfed the entire debate about whether Syria should, or should not be, attacked to prevent the conflict from continuing its bloody course. The reaction from Syria to the strikes wasn’t quite as direct as it might have been. Mixed reports have been seeping through suggesting that a few of the Syrian opposition elements were celebrating the attacks. Enemy of my enemy, and so forth.
Then came the reaction from the Assad government itself, keen to gain purchase for the attacks. After all, there has been a true butchering for a Roman holiday taking place, with the attacks obscuring the regime’s own exploits. The Turkish government, through its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, claimed that Assad has initiated “Plan B” or ethnic cleansing for members of Assad’s Alawite sect.
At the same time, various Arab regimes have also extolled the holiness of Syrian sovereignty while undermining it. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have gotten their mitts dirty on this score, and have backed the Syrian opposition with material even as they condemn Israel in its actions against Israel.
Each stake has undermined the premise of justified strike, and the humanitarian nonsense that will be used to shield any “official” international incursion will simply be designed to ignore one fundamental reality: state interest on either side of the conflict to see the status quo continue or Assad fall.
In one sense, the Israeli strike, with its vicious surgical brutality is the most honest of all. Syria is up for grabs. Sovereignty is for sale to the highest and most violent bidder, and the Syrian people, as they were from the start, will be the ones who will continue to be fodder in a grand game of absurd killings, with all its unbalancing promise.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com