After we expressed our concerns during NATO’s Libyan war that the afterparty was likely to be chaotic and unpleasant, we’ve been watching the horrific humanitarian and political consequences unwind in several places.
Most recently, Via Meadia has been keeping a careful eye on the growing troubles in northern Mali and the storied historical city of Timbuktu for some time. Two groups — the Tuareg independence movement MNLA and the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar Dine — are involved in a struggle for control of a large part of northern Mali. Together, both groups put up a united front in dealing with Mali’s feeble and divided central government, with the result that they’ve seized control of large parts of the country. They then declared a “union” and announced their intention to establish an Islamic, well, something, and began the usual persecutions of and reprisals against their enemies. Due to both tribal and religious differences, their alliance is tenuous and they are held together only by their loathing and jealousy of the south — and their fear that outside groups like the group of west African nations known as ECOWAS will send troops against them.
To make matters more complicated, many of Timbuktu’s original residents, who are displeased with the newcomers, decided to establish their own armed movement — the Patriots’ Resistance Movement for the Liberation of Timbuktu. At this point we have something that looks partly like something out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, partly like a Monty Python sketch, partly like a terrible human tragedy and partly like something much more ominous: a jihadi center organizing itself in an area of weak states and deep regional and ethnic rivalries.
And of course we have hundreds of thousands of refugees, most living in misery far from their homes, various people killed in the fighting and in the revenge killings and reprisals that are taking place, and the destruction of the economy across much of the north. These are all consequences of NATO’s much ballyhooed “humanitarian war” in Libya that, if anybody remembers, was originally launched because of fears that victorious Qaddafi forces would carry out massacres when they retook the rebel city of Benghazi.
NATO didn’t so much prevent massacres as move them offstage; the noble idealists and brilliant strategists in the White House who gave the go ahead for the Libyan war must now adjust their consciences as best they can as the consequences of their intervention roll on through Mali and elsewhere.
Nobody really knows where the mess in Mali will lead. There have been hints African forces will intervene against the Tuareg amid parallel fears that northern Mali would otherwise turn into a haven for international terrorists. The French, who have quietly run parts of west Africa as a neo-colonial fief for the last fifty years, are calling for yet another international intervention. Most of the world’s humanitarians and idealists, however, are so busy calling for a humanitarian war in Syria that they don’t have the energy to simultaneously call for another humanitarian war in Mali. (Nick Kristof, on the other hand, also wants a humanitarian war in Sudan.)
The mess in Mali really is a consequence of the Libyan war. Mali had plenty of problems, but things were running along mostly as usual until Gaddafi-armed Tuareg rebels ditched Libya and returned to northern Mali, where they won a series of skirmishes against poorly equipped Malian government troops. Some of those soldiers’ colleagues in Bamoko then overthrew their democratically elected president just a few weeks before elections (which would have been Mali’s fifth straight) because he was losing territory to the Tuareg and not, in their opinion, doing enough about it. Now the junta in Bamoko is refusing to hold elections while rebels establish themselves in the north and civilians are forced to arm themselves and dig deep in the desert sands for water because resources have become exceedingly scarce.
One of Africa’s more promising democratic experiments is in ruins today because of the Wilsonian war in Libya, and we will never know how many Malians have died so that western idealists could feel better about themselves for a while.
Mali isn’t the only place where the aftermath of this Wilsonian kinetic action don’t look particularly Wilsonian. Back in Libya, dozens of people were killed during fighting in the southern city of Kufra, where plentiful weapons are reigniting old rivalries and hatreds between tribes on all different sides of Libya’s borders with Chad and Sudan and between southern tribes and Libya’s current government which, ensconced on the Mediterranean coast, can seem far, far away indeed. Yet the trouble isn’t limited to Libya’s farflung desert towns — members of one of the numerous militias shut down Tripoli International Airport last Monday, blowing up a hangar and trading fire with other armed groups on the runway.
Western interventionists pushed for the NATO bombing campaign that eventually helped defeat Qaddafi partly because Libya to them seemed simple: On one side were the rebels, hopelessly outgunned, on the verge of a last stand outside Benghazi, defending their city and their women and children against the forces of a brutal dictator who had ruthlessly terrorized the country for decades. Clear cut conflict, right? A no-brainer, a simple choice between Right and Wrong.
Much, of course, like the no-brainer the humanitarians now see before them in Syria, where the brutal dictatorship isn’t only threatening to massacre its citizens, it is actually massacring them day by day.
But Syria is almost infinitely more complicated and both the “humanitarian” war and its afterparty are likely to be messier than anything that happened in Libya and surrounding countries. Syria is far smaller and more densely populated by communities that vary more widely in religion and ethnicity than Libya. Syria is in a tough neighborhood and is not isolated by desert and ocean the way Libya is. Lebanon is occupied by an equally unstable cauldron of communities that have already proven themselves quick on the trigger in their own vicious history of brutal civil wars and now in support of one side or the other in the war next door. There is a desert separating Syria from Iraq, but it is not the Sahara. Refugees and fighters — whether Iraqi, Syrian, Kurdish, Alawite, Christian — continually cross it, fleeing or joining fighting wherever it erupts. Arms traders also work this terrain; wars spread. Turkey is already dealing with thousands of refugees and on at least one occasion fighting has spilled over from the Syrian side of the border.
A nice festive humanitarian intervention in Syria, banners waving, bands playing, choirs singing and ourselves feeling incredibly righteous and smug as we exhibit the beautiful plumes of our fine moral sensibilities to an admiring world, as we bomb the evil doers from 30,000 feet and rain drones down on their heads until they see the error of their ways: the war will have a glamorous start but is unlikely to have a storybook ending.
Unlike the isolationists and the doctrinaire realists, Via Meadia doesn’t slam the door shut on all humanitarian interventions all the time. There can be times in this world when you must act on humanitarian grounds if you can. But those times are rare; bombing the bad guys is not the solution to every crisis, cannot be the solution we trot out three times a week.
The question of Syria is a complicated one. Humanitarian, strategic and practical questions are tangled up in ways that make it very hard to choose a course of action. And one problem is that if we don’t act, others will. The arming of the Sunni opposition by Gulf Arabs, some with Salafi sympathies, will go on no matter what we think or say, and that is likely both to affect the balance of power within the Syrian opposition in ways we don’t like and to change what happens on the ground. At the same time, our strategic interest in pressuring Iran and in that way hoping to avoid a war between the US and Iran makes the ouster of the Syrian regime a much more important goal than it might otherwise be.
There are only two things we can say with any certainty about Syria now. One is that the humanitarian case for intervention is much weaker than its advocates fully grasp because the likelihood of chaos and destruction in the aftermath of a war is so great; the other is that the American policymakers who try to guide us through this morass will have to make second and third best choices. None of the alternatives is particularly attractive, and the situation is so complicated that it is not really possible to predict what the outcomes of any policy will be.