Over the last months as events in Syria have continued to spiral from bad to worse and show no sign of reversing course, I’ve been reflecting on what happened, and why.

The Arab Spring

After the revolution in Tunisia in 2010/2011, it looked like people’s desire for self rule, and possibly even democracy, was going to transform the Middle East from a authoritarian, repressive region to something altogether new and better. It was a very inspirational narrative, one of hope and optimism for the future. It is not how things turned out, but I refuse to call those hopes wrong or even naive, because we must have hope. I am convinced humanity can do better.

Things have gone disastrously wrong. Instead of uniting under national identities and solidarity and self-rule we have sectarian violence, often fanned by outside interest, foreign fighters and weapons. Syria is the most extreme case, but Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and altogether depressingly too many other states suffer from the same malaise. After the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans, both of which occurred in the context of a modern world, the same kind of strife continues in the Middle East, and we appear unable to stop it.

I cannot begin to explain the reasons behind the violence, although cold power games are not helping. Nor can I devise a magic solution.

Men, Women and Children

Someone, almost certainly Assad’s troops, used nerve gas and killed over a thousand people; men, women and children. The United States, France and Great Britain have demanded or are planning military retaliation.

On a superficial level this makes sense: someone (Assad) does something revoltingly inhumane — commits a crime against humanity — and so the international community of civilized states will rain down punishment on the perpetrator.

Once one thinks about it, though, the situation becomes a lot more complicated. The fighting in Syria has already killed, by some accounts, over a hundred thousand people. One could well argue that the latest horror is but a footnote in the mass slaughter, and the current outrage is but a strange form of hypocrisy.

Why do chemical, biological and radiological weapons elicit such an immediate and strong reaction? Partially I suspect it’s that an international norm has successfully been set against their use. Reacting to their use in this case would reinforce that norm, and that is a positive. These are weapons that work extraordinarily well against civilian populations, who have little protection from them. They are indiscriminate; if there are rebel fighters in a part of town, they will kill the rebels and everyone else. They are strange and frightening and alien, you may not see or smell them. They can produce particularly agonizing deaths and there is relatively little that can be done to save an affected person.

Chemical weapons should remain a normative taboo, and that norm should be strengthened. The problem is how. If Assad — or anyone else — finds them to be of great utility in clearing out entrenched urban rebels, troublesome civilian populations and creating terror among his enemies, the penalty for using them needs to be greater than the benefits. That can be difficult to achieve, though. Bombing urban areas, no matter how smart a munition, still results in civilian casualties and ruthless regimes can make sure they are maximized by co-siting humanitarian shelters with military targets. It is difficult to justify an action that kills civilians as just punishment for killing civilians. As Saddam Hussein’s and Osama bin Laden’s long escapades demonstrated, it is surprisingly difficult to truly impact a determined, well resourced opponent with bombs and missiles.

The Enemy of my Enemy…

There’s also the larger context. Disturbingly, not all members of these “civilized states” are interested in punitive measures, let alone military ones. If major, well-established nation-states are not prepared to bolster some of the most non-controversial norms out there because they conflict with their national interests, what can we make of that? But yet, if there is no international consensus or legitimacy for a punitive action, attacking another sovereign state with military force is, no matter how you bake it and no matter the motives, a war of aggression.

That’s a slippery slope. If the United States finds that it can unilaterally, or with a few of its allies, punish another state for unacceptable behavior with military strikes, ignoring sovereignty and the most basic principles of the United Nations, what is to stop China, for example, of using the same logic against Tibet? Or Russia against its former states? Doing this makes violation of sovereignty and unilateral military action more acceptable, and that’s a change in norm that is clearly not good. A similar door has already been propped open with the dubious definitions of fight against terrorism and drone attacks, and we’ll be dealing with the unpleasant things crawling in soon enough, I predict.

The United States attempted to forestall the use of chemical weapons in Syria by declaring it a red line — cynical reading would say this means that slaughter by any other means was acceptable. Ultimatums in diplomacy have a tendency to backfire. In this case, one has backed the United States into a corner. Not to act would mean weakness and lessen any subsequent threats and attempts to influence the behaviors of others by means of diplomacy. But acting will bring with it countless negatives as well. Even worse, there are actors, such as Russia and Iran which clearly benefit from the weakening of the United States, and therefore might have a motivation to encourage behavior or events that lead to such a no-win scenario. I’m not saying any of them did, but from a cold power calculation, it stands in their interest.

A Kinder, Gentler… What?

There are precious few non-military options left either. The regime is already an international pariah, and is fighting for its survival, so any additional sanctions would barely register. In any case, as long as some countries are not interested in playing along, and the regime can get the goods it wants or needs, such measures are moot. Summoning those responsible in front of international tribunals is logistically impossible during a war, and again there is a considerable lack of consensus for the legitimacy of such mechanisms. Threatening Assad’s future comfort is unlikely to sway him from trying to survive by any and all means a war fought today.

How Did it Come to This?

Rolling the clock back even more makes one wonder what, if anything, could have been done to prevent events from progressing to this point. Maybe promoting democracy, self-rule, human rights, co-operation and discouraging authoritarian regimes would be the safest thing to do, no matter the immediate political costs, to forestall future disasters like this one? Aggressive use of diplomatic and economic power to engineer more interconnected and democratic countries and institutions is expensive, long-term, and often thankless, but a determined push could well have an effect in a generation or two.

Fear Thy Neighbor

A central piece of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which is often forgotten is this: to discourage countries that do not already possess nuclear weapons from acquiring them, the nuclear powers agree to disarm and guarantee the safety of the non-nuclear nations. The argument “you do not need powerful weapons, we will make sure you’re safe from attack” works just the same for biological and chemical weapons. If countries do not have to fear existential threats, and if there are strong international norms against certain kinds of weaponry, it makes sense for them to not develop them.

Unfortunately, the reality is the opposite. States, whether enemies (Iran, North Korea etc.) or allies (yes, I mean Israel) do face existential threats. Based on history, they have little faith, rightly so, that the nuclear club or the international community would intervene on their behalf as was promised. Arming themselves remains the only logical option, and matching this arms race remains the only logical option to their adversaries.

Again, had the world been able to hold itself to the principles of the NPT, things might look different today.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I don’t know. I’m afraid I agree with many pundits and analysts who predict that there’s no stopping the carnage. Sectarian civil war will rage for years. We can care for the victims, we can protect the helpless, we can work to keep outside entities from pouring gas on the fire, we can try to do our damnedest to mediate and help diplomacy have a chance, and hope that it is enough to allow us to look ourselves in the mirror.

And we can think about these things, and pray to get the wisdom to learn from our past.