When you look at the situation in Syria, it’s obvious that many innocent people have been killed, and that is a profound tragedy. But I think that the narrative in the West — that this was basically a peaceful protest by Syrians that was responded to brutally, and these people took all of this violence until a year later, eighteen months later, they had to start responding violently — I don’t think that’s really the way things played out. Outside powers — the Saudis, others — were pouring money and weapons into Syria from a very early point.
The agenda was not to bring democracy to Syrians. I don’t think the Saudis care about that; frankly, I don’t think the United States cares all that much about that. The agenda was to topple Assad as a way of hurting Iran’s regional position. 70,000 dead Syrians later, this project has not worked. Now countries like the United States face a choice. They can either accept that this project of toppling Assad to hurt Iran has failed, and they can get serious about a diplomatic process that might produce a political settlement and end violence. Or if they keep doing this, if they keep supporting the opposition, we’re going to be looking at literally years of continued violence, and who knows how many more tens of thousands of dead Syrians.
That is the choice. For as long as opposition groups have outside supporters like the Saudis, like the United States, who are in a sense egging them on, they have absolutely no incentive to face political reality and enter some kind of negotiating process…They don’t have an interest in doing that because there are outsiders who will help them keep the violence rolling along indefinitely.
As far as the United States doing what ‘was necessary’ early on, there is this small matter of sovereignty, there’s this small matter of international law that says you only get to use force when the Security Council authorizes it or under a fairly narrow interpretation of self-defense in the UN Charter. The United States has no right—it may have a hegemonic prerogative (or think it does), but it has no right—to impose no-fly zones over sovereign states to get rid of a leader that it doesn’t like…
Find one case in which the United States applied military force, ostensibly for the protection of civilian populations, in which part of its agenda was not also regime change in that country. If you look at the Balkans, if you look at Iraq, if you look at what we did in Libya, if you look at what we say we want to do in Syria—in every one of those cases, the argument for humanitarian intervention is inextricably bound up with the argument for coercive regime change. Frankly, I think Russia and China are eminently justified in saying that they’re not going to enable that.
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