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.

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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.

Keeping Syria in the context of other civil conflicts does not excuse or justify the bloodshed. But it should lead us to ask why some people who advocate an intervention now in Syria did not do so with those prior conflicts. That doesn't mean they must necessarily be wrong, of course, but it does provide an opportunity for understanding the justifications and motivations for intervention.

It makes a certain kind of sense that intervention is a more attractive option for conflicts, such as Libya's, where intervention seems easier, less costly, and more likely to work. However, it's worth noting that this creates a perverse incentive for abusive regimes, which will understand that they can raise the costs of intervention sufficiently high to make intervention unpalatable for the West.

One lesson future tyrants will likely draw from Libya, for example, is that giving up a nuclear weapons program removes a major deterrent for intervention. So, too, is Syria teaching tyrants that a sufficiently large army, coupled with close relationships with UN Security Council members Russia and China, may make direct intervention distasteful for Western policymakers.

Some of the world's worst conflicts with the highest numbers of civilian dead go receive far less attention in the global media and Western capitals than does Syria. That's not an argument for ignoring Syria as well, of course, nor is it an argument for intervening in every conflict. But the discrepancy should lead us to ask why Syria gets so much more attention than, for example, Sri Lanka, and whether our metrics to evaluate who deserves an intervention are really fair or objective. Establishing tandards matters, and when it comes to the relatively new idea of a "responsibility to protect," we're still figuring that out.

* - This post originally stated that the International Rescue Committee report on the Congo was released recently and that its research had found 7 million deaths. The post has been updated to reflect that the report in fact came out in 2008, and that 5.4 million people were killed from causes related to the conflict. The majority of those causes were disease and hunger, according to a representative from the International Rescue Committee, to whom we are grateful for notifying us of the discrepancy. We regret the error.