09/25/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Good Wars and Bad Anti-Wars?

Accurate history is messy, because reality is messy -- and that is no more apparent than over Syria. The lines between good and bad are never as clear and bold as we would like. Take the example of the Second World War, which most of us accept as about as clear-cut a battle between good and evil as one could conjure up -- and so it was, in very broad brush strokes.

But that war was won with the aid of a brutal Soviet Union, which from 1939 was an effective ally of its later enemy, Nazi Germany, and which had, by 1941, far more blood on its hands than did Hitler's regime. After the war, both sides overlooked collaborators and propped up regimes that left little to choice. In East Germany, first the KGB and then the Stasis took over Gestapo establishments and persecuted opponents with equal fervor -- and on occasion the same opponents!

However, as Orwell said, in most wars one side stands more or less for progress, and in the case of the Second World War, that was the Allied side. While the United Nations that emerged from the war has many resemblances to the former League of Nations, there were fundamental differences in its approach. Following the First World War, Europe's former nation states were dissolving, so under the influence of Woodrow Wilson, the League oversaw plebiscites and referenda that dismembered sovereign nation states, with some respect for self-determination of the peoples. One could argue that the multinational Ottoman and Habsburg realms had more to offer the future of humanity than their squabbling sanguinary successor states, but that is for another time.

There were major exclusions to the application of the principle of self-determination: Wilson was, after all, a racist Southern Dixiecrat, albeit more cerebral than most. In Europe, German speakers discovered that the rules did not apply to them, and in the rest of the world Arabs, Kurds and others soon discovered that the Great Powers were "only kidding."

It was this period that saw the invention of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Jewish nationality as opposed to confessionality. When dealing with concepts so subjective and fuzzy it is hardly surprising that logic was lacking, however. Greek-speaking Muslims became Turks, Turkish-speaking Orthodox became Greeks, and Catholic Lebanese/Syrians tried to become French, while other Christian Arabs helped invent Arab nationalism.

The Second World War showed little respect for national self-determination, as peoples from the Baltics southward discovered, and of course the Germans paid all over again. But once the mayhem was done and the boundaries adjusted, the foundational principle of the United Nations was the sanctity of state sovereignty and boundaries -- no matter how illogical.

This amounted to restoration of an old principle, enshrined in the messy pragmatic details of the Treaty of Wesphalia that ended Europe's Thirty-Year War -- that of national sovereignty. In the context of the time, it meant that if a monarch was Catholic and persecuting his Protestant subjects, or vice versa, it was nobody else's business.

Generalized and refined, that principle is now enshrined in the U.N. Charter as "all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state," and of course emphasized in Security Council Resolution 242 as "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force."

That is why, since the arbitrary redrawings of boundaries at the end of World War II, aggressors like Indonesia in East Timor, Morocco in Western Sahara, Iraq in Kuwait, and of course Israel in  Palestine have never been able to gain legal recognition of their conquests. It is why, only recently, a federal court ruled that the State Department could refuse to put "Jerusalem, Israel," as the place of birth on U.S. passports for Americans who want to have their Aliyah and eat it, too.
Ironically, however, while under old style international law Palestinians living in Gaza can claim protection under the Geneva Conventions -- even if it does not help them much -- Syrians being shelled and strafed by their own regime cannot.

However, since then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan steered the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) concept through the 2005 General Assembly, international law has changed, building on the International Criminal Court and its jurisdiction. The international community can now hold governments responsible for their failure to protect their own populations and indeed hold them to account for persecuting their "own" citizens.

The big problem with humanitarian intervention, even when called "Responsibility to Protect," is that it is susceptible to expedient abuse. Hitler justified intervention in Czechoslovakia on the grounds of mistreatment of the Sudeten Germans, who had indeed been denied their right to self-determination in the Versailles settlement. Tony Blair invoked the plight of Iraqi civilians to justify his and George Bush's crusade against Iraq.

Russia, while it voted with the rest of the world on the general principle of R2P, invokes national sovereignty to ensure that it cannot be effectively implemented, at least against its allies. As in Libya, Moscow can draw support from the ineptitude of American diplomacy, which stands self-evidently guilty of egregious hypocrisy in its dealings with, above all, the Middle East.

Syria, but not Palestine

So, while Washington has been instrumental in preventing effective action to stop Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, American politicians are wringing their hands and saying "something must be done" about Syria. Perhaps the sole concession to rationality is that, apart from the lunatic neocons who gave us Iraq,  there seems to be a general concession that U.S. forces cannot play a prominent role in intervention. On the other hand, U.S. diplomacy for decades seems to have specialized in rubbing the wrong way all the other major players, like Iran and Russia.

Washington's inaction is made easier because of public confusion about who the good guys are, and Russian media in particular highlight the barbarisms committed by the fundamentalists in the Syrian opposition. There is, sadly, much to highlight. However, that does not negate the reality that the Assad regime began by attacking unarmed protesters and since then has sought to win hearts and minds by bombing and shelling its own cities. Certainly some of the opposition have carried out atrocities, but the regime as a whole has pursued a policy of violent wholesale repression.

The reason so many oppose Assad's regime is because it is ruthless and murderous -- so there is absolutely no excuse not to denounce such behavior when committed by some of "our" side. Indeed, there is even more reason to do so, since to be silent implies complicity.
One other, almost unrecognized act of non-partisan balance has come from the U.N., in its reports on Syria, which suggest that people on both sides have used chemical weapons and violated human rights. It has resisted attempts to provide the smoking chemical canisters that neocon hawks pine for, even though it has indeed made plain that the balance of crimes weighs heavily down on the regime side. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has called for an investigation into credible allegations of murders by fundamentalist elements of the opposition.

The human rights bodies of the U.N. have often made for strange bedmates. Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq, when they were each embroiled in bitter conflicts between them, always seemed to unite to ensure that human rights pariahs were represented on the Human Rights Committee and its successor Council. However, their active conspiracy could not survive without the tacit connivance of other members. This year only seven countries -- China, Iran, Jordan, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam -- were candidates for the four Asian seats on the Human Rights Council.
Pro-Israel activists harp on about Iran and Syria, because they are more actively anti-Israel than the others. But none of them really pass muster. The Maldives is the only one that has any serious pretensions to democracy, and even there a semi-coup recently took place.

If countries with pretensions to human rights and democracy cannot bring themselves to stand for such positions, one can see the difficulties in corralling together an effective bloc that could intervene in Syria. Sadly, short of spillover into neighboring countries, it is difficult to see what motivation could inspire such a coalition, diplomatic or military.

And the one "indispensable country" that could at least inspire, if not lead, such a move is hopelessly compromised by its record of partisanship in the region. But at the very least, armed with Pillay's demonstrable non-partisan commitment to human rights, the Security Council should mandate International Criminal Court investigations into crimes by both sides in Syria.