September 12, 2018
Earlier this week, the United States commemorated the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – atrocities that shook the world then, and continue to do so today. Following the attacks, the then US president George W Bush launched separate campaigns of military action against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Now it appears that the Russian and Syrian regime assault on Idlib is about to commence. These events are inextricably linked, but their connections are still not fully understood.
Iraq is often raised as an exemplar of the present state of the Arab world, and it is important that it is. It is impossible to uncouple the 2003 invasion of Iraq by Western forces from the region’s present-day realities. It would be far too simplistic to lay so much chaos at the door of the Iraq war – after all, the Iraqi people are not without agency – but the line connecting former Baathists, Al Qaeda members, the invasion, its aftermath, and the rise of ISIS cannot be denied.
But when we consider Iraq, it is important to understand something else. While it is the place where the savagery of ISIS was birthed, it is also a place where the “international order” was once effectively exhibited. The concept of international order is rooted in a post-war idea of global morality and responsibility underpinned by the “liberal moment”, as described by political scientist Robert Latham in his 1997 book of the same name.
In August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, an international coalition was raised to push his forces back. It succeeded. Unfortunately, a similar depth of concern – even of the non-military kind – from the international community has not been exhibited towards present-day Syria. Compared to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the destruction wrought upon Syria by various international actors is many times more severe. But little has been done to stop it – and little more will be done. The idea that any form of international order, underpinned by humanitarian and political principle, continues to exist is a complete myth. This has been made abundantly clear by the way that we are now discussing the fate of Idlib.
We are now no longer even pretending that international law and basic human rights have anything to do with the way the world works. The Trump administration has made itself plain: “Take Idlib if you want, Syrian regime and your allies in Russia and Iran – just don’t use chemical weapons.”
But what would happen if they did use chemical weapons? Would there be any consequences at all? What if the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had taken place in 2018 instead of 1990? Would a similar international coalition have been there to stop it? Today, it seems sounds fanciful even to consider the thought. Just ask the people of the Ukraine what happened when Russia came crashing through their borders.
The following question, then, must be raised – did this much-trumpeted international order ever exist in the first place? Perhaps the “liberal moment” was precisely that; a fleeting instant in history, rather than a concrete foundation upon which the world was to build a prosperous and politically stable future.
The evidence in favour is far from convincing. Ask the people of Syria and the Ukraine, but also ask the Uighurs of China and the Rohingya of Myanmar. For that matter, why not ask the people of Palestine too? How are we expected to have any faith in the idea of a fundamental set of global ethics when essential human rights can be abused with such disdain, when the sovereignty of nations can be so easily ignored, and the response of the international community is based solely on myopic, self-serving realpolitik?
The bleak irony is that this approach is not realpolitik at all. If it were, the consequences would have been far better thought out. After all, in the long term, turning a blind eye to brutality and suffering always backfires and disorder and chaos is in no one’s best interest. Indeed, it makes all of us far less safe and far more vulnerable.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London