Thursday, January 5, 2012

International intervention: Why Libya and not Syria?

Philip Gourevitch has an interesting post at the New Yorker on the situation in Syria: The Arab Winter. It is striking to me how much stamina the protesters in Syria have displayed, given how little headway they have been able to make on their own against Assad's security forces, and how little international assistance, or even attention, they have received.

Gourevitch concludes that although the Arab League has taken some action on Syria, and has monitors on the ground now, these are likely to remain toothless. He does not deem it likely that more will happen: "Qadaffi was uniquely reviled, and uniquely disposable, and disposing of him was the easy part of the revolution (as it was with Mubarak in Egypt). With Assad it’s trickier—and the Syrian people remain hostages of that trickiness."

It is also worth thinking about geopolitics here (Gourevitch does so a little, but it is not the focus of his argument): chaos in Libya is much less worrisome to all kinds of key actors in world politics than is chaos in Syria, as a simple look at the map makes clear. What would instability in Syria mean for Israel, for Turkey, for Iraq, and for their various allies?

Still, there cannot be many other countries at the moment where the government is killing its own civilians at the same rate as Assad's troops are doing (an average of about 20 citizens per day since March, Gourevitch calculates). For those who argued for intervention in Libya on purely humanitarian grounds, that ought to mean something.

(Interesting idea for an undergraduate research project: compile data on rates of death-by-government-forces in authoritarian countries and see what kinds of patterns, if any, one can find. There are datasets on total deaths, so rates should be not that hard to deduce. But I can't think, off-hand, of anyone who has looked into them. Be the first!)

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