Syria and the World's Troubling Inconsistency on Intervention

Twice as many civilians die in Mexico's conflict, a reminder that we still haven't established a standard for who merits outside assistance and when.

Homs Feb29 p.jpg

Members of Free Syrian Army hold their rifles as they stand in al-Bayada, Homs / Reuters

On Wednesday morning, the Syrian army announced its intention to "clean" the rebel-held city of Homs, specifically the Baba Amr neighborhood. The sterility of the language to describe a massive offensive that will surely kill scores if not hundreds of civilians, is reminiscent of another dry term for mass slaughter: ethnic cleansing.

The UN recently estimated that more than 7,500 civilians have been killed in the last 11 months of bloodshed in Syria, and is continuing at well over 100 per day. It is a stark, shattering number that has prompted renewed cries for the international community to do something -- anything -- to end the bloodshed.

There are several reasons why a direct military intervention would be a terrible idea: start with the opposition by Russia and China (which would make intervening a rejection of UN legitimacy) and end with the challenges of directly arming the Free Syrian Army rebel group. But there's a bigger question to ask the chorus of demands that the West "do something": why Syria? Why now?

Asking "why Syria" is not an excuse for the Assad regime, whose conduct the last 11 months has been inexcusable and unjustifiable. Its conduct is not so rare, however, at least in comparison to other governments attempting to quash rebellion. Compared to other rebellions, insurgencies, and plain old chaotic environments, Syria is unusual in sparking weeks of angry UN speeches and media hand-wringing. So why does Syria deserve such attention?

About twice as many civilians were killed in organized drug violence last year in Mexico -- 16,000 according to some estimates -- as in Syria. While the violence in Mexico has become a political football in U.S. circles, the extremeness of it, with more than 47,000 dead since 2006, has not sparked the same international panic as Syria's terrible but substantially lower levels of violence.

There are lots of places that either are or were far more violent than Syria. The current crisis in Sudan and South Sudan is appalling and widespread, yet apart from a tiny Chinese peacekeeping force there is little transnational effort to mobilize the world to stop it.

The International Rescue Committee, in 2008, released a study that found that 45,000 Congolese civilians were dying each month in a conflict that killed an estimated 5.4 million people between 1998 and the report's release. Most of the deaths were from disease and hunger, according to the report, although another reason for the high death toll was fighting in the DRC's eastern region, near Rwanda. Despite the 5,000 or so UN peacekeepers, the country is still unstable.*

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, more than 11,000 Sri Lankan civilians died in 2009 during the final phase of the civil war between the Sinhalese government and Tamil Tiger rebel movement. Nearly 7,000 civilians -- almost as many as have died in an entire year of fighting in Syria -- were killed in a single month. While there is international pressure to indict members of the Sri Lankan government for war crimes, the world's reaction at the time never focused on a direct intervention the way it does now with Syria.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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