For my young adult life I have ascribed to the belief that no individual should be the victim of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing. Working to realize those two infamous and hypocritical words, never again, I wanted to believe that as a global community, when it came to the worst atrocities, not just the really bad ones, we might have moved on from our dark history of failures.
I have tried holding on to that belief, that despite the fog of war there are certain things that we cannot stand for. And amidst the insanity that is our world, there was some hope. Despite being at the river's banks, I thought we were on the right side of our Rubicon.
Then Bashar al-Assad started using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
Doctors Without Borders reported:
"The reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events, characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers, strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent."
A call to action? Not yet. While President Obama weighs his response, he told CNN he wanted to avoid "jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations."
Apparently the situation in Syria can get less "well."
I was heavily involved with Darfur advocacy in Canada. It was an uphill battle trying to convince people that we needed to do "something." The suffering and scale of the human tragedy was not enough. Sudan was far away, our geopolitical interest there was questionable, and people get tired of African wars. Darfur taught me that we need a hook. Altruistic motives aren't enough.
Syria confused me. Like most of us I supported the peaceful protests and wanted them to succeed. A post-Assad Syria was a welcomed change to the region. But when violence took hold, I was cautious. Darfur's killing was always in the back of my mind, but did we intervene in Libya with too much haste? Where was the accountability for what would happen in a post-Qaddafi Libya? Who was benefiting from our guns?
My liberal interventionism collided with realpolitik; there was no formulaic fix. Humanitarian intervention, a term as comforting as it is ambiguous, cannot sort out every mess. Sure we might have a responsibility to protect each other, but it's hard and messy, especially when we aren't really sure what to make of Syria's rebels. Ideals and facts do not always mesh well.
In Syria we have been, perhaps rightfully, very concerned with getting ourselves caught in a situation where we have little control or influence, and whose end is unpredictable. Syria's civilians have paid the highest price of this calculus.
Now, however, that calculus must change. Showing an unhealthy penchant for nuance, President Obama cautioned against "very expensive, difficult, costly interventions." I believe his trepidation is misplaced. Today presents a new, more immediate and urgent reality that dictates that the challenges of tomorrow must wait for tomorrow. How can a future be worse than a present in which civilians can be freely gassed by their own government?
Forget never again, the Responsibility to Protect, and talk of red lines -- we're past empty slogans. When civilians are gassed in 2013, killed without battle wounds as if they just went to sleep, and we cannot muster the anger and horror to put an immediate end to such inhumanity, it is our humanity that dies too.
All pretences of an international order, of a commitment to human rights and dignity, of our morality and decency, will perish in Syria if we do not stop this. 2013 and onwards will be known as post-Syria, an age in which right and wrong cease to be defined because we will have failed once and for all the test to confront the clearest instance of wrong.
Saddam gassed the Kurds in Halabja. Assad's father basically wiped out the opposition in Hama. And in Rwanda 800,000 were slaughtered. But this is different. The Rwandan genocide lasted three months deep in Africa. Saddam's massacre was masked by the brutal Iran-Iraq war, and the killing in Hama was more isolated, hidden from our view.
We have witnessed Syria unfold for almost two and a half years. For the entirety of the Syrian uprising we have watched on our televisions incredibly brave men and women stand up to a ruthless dictator, no, he's actually worse than that. We have quietly rooted them on while we determined that other, larger factors precluded us from supporting them more overtly. We could live with war; we always have.
This isn't war, however. And nor is this any longer about liberal international idealism, neo-conservatism, geopolitics, or a national interest. This is right versus wrong. A madman is gassing his own people. If it's not stopped, if we don't stop it, all of our fates will have been sealed.