The three year long conflict in Syria has totally devastated both the state’s infrastructure and Syrian fabric of society. Syria now stands a divided country in the midst of a protracted civil war. Both the government and the fractured opposition are committing human rights violations ranging from torture and inhumane treatment right the way to mass extra-judicial killings. The violence has already claimed 170,000 lives and displaced over 6.5 million persons including, 2.9 million cross-border refugees.
In the Syrian situation, the government had asymmetric capabilities vis-a-vis their opponents until third-party states actively began to support sub-state actors by allowing them to operate from their territories, as well as, through the transfer of funds, logistical support, intelligence sharing, arms supplies and training. Therefore, the Syrian conflict can be categorised as an internal conflict with external dimensions due to the intervention of third-party states through proxy sub-state actors.
International law, as it is constituted within the United Nations Charter, is based upon the principals of sovereignty and non-interference within a state’s domestic affairs. Within international law, all states are classed as equal units within the international system. Contrary to domestic legal systems, international law is horizontal and based upon consensus. States are only subject to laws which they have accepted through the ratification of discreet treaties. This system was created during the dissolution of global empires and is designed to protect weak states from the undue influence of great powers within an anarchic international system, devoid of hierarchy, where variation in material capabilities significantly affects the behaviour of rational like-minded state actors.
The increased normative power of human rights law during the 1990s has modified the concept of sovereignty to include the provision of human rights to a Western standard in addition to the control of populous, territory and legitimate use of violence. Thus, the understanding of sovereignty has been modified from being the right of all states, to becoming a duty for all states to uphold. The new understanding, although not part of hard international law, can lead to the temporary suspension of a state’s sovereignty in order to correct human rights abuses via the collective action of the international community. International law still holds that it is illegal to interfere within another state’s domestic affairs, however laws are always subject to interpretation and can in certain instances be short-circuited by cries for a humanistic approach favouring intervention to remove violent regimes.
This denies the fact that the natural development of a state requires episodes of violent struggle. Western nation-states were subject to hundreds of years of inter-communal violence before they became democratic nations capable of governing their populations exclusively via the rule of law. Democratisation is an extremely violent process with political winners and losers. Intervention means choosing sides, effectively shifting a state’s political trajectory, as well as, reducing a state’s independence.
Although it may seem callous to leave states to their own devices, intervening actually negates a society’s agency. The Syrian people are capable, through their own volition, given the time, to shape their own future without external influence. Great powers must get over the fallacy that they are the supreme protectors of other differentiated nations. Manipulating an alienated section of society into taking arms against its state is never benign or altruistic but a matter of calculated self-interest. The veritable weakness of the opposition at the onset of the conflict reveals the premature nature of the uprising. Genuine reform of a state’s political system occurs organically through internal socio-political processes which through time shift the domestic balance of power and bring about fundamental political changes without recourse to external support.
Interventions rarely complete their desired or publicly stated aims. Instead, the same disastrous side effects constantly reoccur. Interventions characteristically set up client regimes indebted to the great powers which implanted them into government. States subject to interference are brought into the gambit of the intervening great power and consolidated within its sphere of influence, locked into binding trade agreements, which constitute as a complementary component of that great power’s international economic system. Domestically, artificial power sharing political institutions are constructed with entrenched constitutions, which create paraplegic governments, unable to pass even the slightest controversial piece of legislation. Finally, states subject to intervention are reduced to docile actors in world politics, no longer capable of following their own foreign policy.
In the case of Syria, intervening to support the weaker opposition movement against the government has caused an intractable conflict, prolonging the violence, which has led to the weakening of state control over segments of its society and sections of its territory. The power vacuum has been flooded with extremist Islamic groups, a significant portion of which are foreign jihadists, who are utilising Syria as a safe haven from which to launch operations to destabilise neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Iraq, causing the conflict to spill over, adversely affecting international peace and security.