Monday, October 27, 2008

Breaking Rules in Syria

In another public trouncing of established international law, U.S. military helicoptors staged an attack yesterday 8 kilometers inside Syria. According to the Washington Post:

"Sunday's attack was on the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, five miles inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction, firing on the workers inside, shortly before sundown."

The target of the strike was Abu Ghadiya, described as "one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region" by an anonymous official who added "He is believed to have been killed." Details were added by Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem in this video posted on CNN's website; according to his reports, the helicopters landed at the farm in broad daylight; soldiers disembarked and killed civilian construction workers, the farm guard and his family, four children, and even a hapless nearby fisherman.

This action will surely complicate the already hairy negotiations over a longer US precense in Iraq after the UN mandate expires in two months. And although Western papers are overwhelmingly including the word "rare" in their description of the attack (just try Googling "Rare Attack on Syria" to see what I mean), we have to view this event within a larger context. First of all, although US strikes into Syria may be "rare" (right now), strikes across Pakistani borders were getting increasinly un-rare until a large enough public backlash occurred several months ago. Secondly, the neccesity for breaking international rules to protect national interests reflects a broad trend in contemporary conflict - state actors pitted against non-state actors.

I like Lionel Beehner blog-topic of earlier this year (check it out at Huffington Post) in which he makes the case for non-violence in these new wars against terrorists, criminal networks, and separatist groups.

"The steady erosion of sovereign borders and growing threat of non-state actors like al-Qaeda suggest that these kinds of cross-border incursions will grow ever more frequent. Moreover, because states fear tipping local sympathies toward the side of the non-state actor--and losing the public relations battle, as it were--these kinds of "hot pursuit" missions will not be sustained, heavy-handed attacks with massive casualties but rather short in-and-out raids or air strikes. The targets will not be large population centers but terrorist camps or weapons caches, mostly found along borders."

Beehner writes that this kind of war strategy cannot work, because the deck is stacked against the state actor - raids aren't heavy-handed enough to suppress the threat, but they are heavy-handed enough to cause outrage. The outcome is a long, intractable conflict with public opinion turned against the state. The viable strategy is nonviolent, says Beehner: long term development through improving social, economic, and political conditions - and relationship building on the ground.

It seems to me that this "radical" strategy gives the added benefit of protecting and strengthening normative rules instead of undermining them. And the rules it protects are pro-social ones that underpin stable democratic regimes: human rights and non-violent conflict resolution. Hmm - how's that for "democratization"?

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