Tag Archives: Syria

Syria’s civil war: time to call it what it is

I constantly see headlines which say something along the lines of “fears of Syria civil war” or “Clashes in Syria amid civil war warnings” which I have to say confuse me a bit. A quick search for definitions of the term “civil war” seems to suggest that it is “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” Wikipedia states that the parties must be organised, but the general theme is the same – war between groups within a country. Surely then Syria is already in a civil war, so why won’t anyone admit that?

My guess would be that Western powers don’t want to say it because they would rather frame the conflict as the Syrian government cracking down on protesters, and that calling it a civil war could be seen to be legitimating government violence against its citizens. Russia doesn’t want to say it because then they would be admitting that the Syrian government is not as strong as they would like it to be. The news media in general reports what officials are saying, so they won’t call it a civil war until someone in power does. Obviously Al-Assad and co aren’t gonna say it – in their view the opposition are terrorists and criminals.

Calling the crisis a civil war won’t actually change anything the ground but it will allow for a more robust dialogue on how this situation can be resolved. However for now it seems as if the emperor has no clothes. Everyone can see that Syria is in the grip of a violent and nasty civil war yet no one will admit it…

Pity the UN

I pity the poor old United Nations. It seems to get a lot of stick from people – often for wildly contradictory reasons. On the one hand there are those who consider it part of the Illuminati’s plan to dominate the globe, while others claim (perhaps more eloquently) that it is ineffective, weak and hypocritical. To this first position I say: “Really? Have you looked at the UN in action?” To the second: “Yes, but…”

Lets start with the Security Council because that’s what most people think of when they use the term “UN”. The Security Council votes on matters relating to international security (whoa) and has five permanent members who can veto any decision if they don’t agree with it. Those countries are the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK, and the reason it is them and no one else is because they were the important ones when the UN Charter was written up. Now some say Russia does not deserve a permanent seat because it is not the USSR anymore (as it was when the UN was founded) and is no longer a superpower.  I must have missed the memo about the UK and France’s superpower status, but anyway the real reason people seem to not like Russia is its use of the veto on issues that affect its allies, like when it vetoes resolutions condemning Israel… oh wait, wrong country. I mean like when Russia vetoed a resolution on Syria, or Kosovo. China has also raised ire with its use of the veto as well.

The reason the veto power is there is so that the big powers would want to be a part of the UN in the first place. There is no way to enforce international law except through other states so if a state is big enough and powerful enough to not fear retaliation then it has no need for international law, except to give it legitimacy and credibility. Therefore the big, nuclear armed powers that existed when the UN was formed needed something to sweeten the deal so they got the right to veto stuff they didn’t agree with. Not fair, but a necessary compromise. Now they have that power why would they let it go? It is better to accept it exists and try to work around it. The UN Security Council still achieves things in a lot of cases, mandating the Libya intervention for instance, or reinforcing laws banning child soldiers.

Most people are used to the idea of a government with complete control over the right to use violence within its borders (thank you Max Weber) and seem to have problem understanding that the UN does not function as an international government in this sense. It has no independent armed force (members contribute troops to missions) and even if it did it would not be able to take on the likes of Russia or the USA anyway. It is a compromise between absolute state sovereignty and the rule of law at an international level, and like all compromises it gets messy sometimes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful compromise though, at least in many cases.

Finally all those aspects of the UN that aren’t the Security Council or the General Assembly, like UNICEF, UNDP, and UNESCO etc perform useful functions around the world and the UN itself creates a perfect framework for such operations.

So yeah, the UN isn’t perfect, but much of what is claimed about it is inaccurate and misinformed. Reforming the UN system to remove the veto powers of the Big 5 is appealing but I honestly can’t see it happening. Maybe I’m just too much of a realist (in the international relations sense) but I can’t see the big powers giving up an advantage they currently have in return for no net gain. The structure of the UN is now embedded in global politics and that makes it very difficult to change. It could be worse though: we could still have the League of Nations.


*I wrote a paper for an honours course (4th year at college for those outside NZ) about humantarian intervention without a UN Security Council mandate a couple of years ago, which covered some of this kind of stuff in a bit more detail. It compared the war in Kosovo in 1999 with that between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and drew some conclusions from this. I have uploaded it here if anyone cares! (Be warned, its about 9000 words long)

What makes the news the news?

Obviously there’s a lot more going on in the world than can fit in an hour-long news show or on the front page of a website, so how do certain events become considered newsworthy and others not? There seems to be two common answers to this question: the mainstream view that stuff that makes the news does so because it is more important than stuff that doesn’t, and the leftie perspective that the stuff that makes the news represents the interests of powerful businessmen and politicians. I think both these arguments have merit in certain situations, but there’s other factors at play  that don’t often get considered.

Firstly, the two commonly presented reasons for the nature of news coverage. Some events have a much larger impact on people’s lives and global politics than others, and these generally make the news over things that have a lesser impact. For instance an event like the Eurozone crisis receives much more global coverage than a constitutional crisis in Papua New Guinea because it can affect almost everyone on the planet through disruption of financial markets, lost jobs, currency fluctuations etc, whereas as interesting as the PNG crisis was it really only affects people who live there or have interests there. Fair enough then I guess. However, the statement that the news represents the interests of an elite is also broadly true – especially in how certain events are portrayed. The lack of coverage given at the time to such monumental events as the biggest conflict since WWII can only reflect the fact that there was no business or financial interests for the West to protect in this case and thus it wasn’t deemed important. But surely an event does not have to be influential on the people reading its lives for it to be considered newsworthy, or else why does Syria dominate the news? As horrible as the situation there is it doesn’t directly affect the lives of the vast majority of news consumers in the same way that the Eurozone crisis does. The 10,000 or so dead there sounds like a lot, but more people than that are estimated to have died on the island of Bougainville during the war there and I doubt many people have even heard of the place outside of the South Pacific. This will probably change when a movie about it starring Hugh Laurie comes out.

So importance to the audience generally and the interests of the “news-selectors” (to perhaps coin a phrase) are both factors in what makes the news, but they are not the sole determinants. One blindingly obvious factor is that there is always going to be a finite amount of reporting available even in our information-saturated internet age and so certain events will always be excluded. Similarly, it is easier to report from certain environments for logistical reasons and thus this influences the level of reportage. Ultimately though I think the biggest factor that people don’t realise is a version of the network effect.  Once a news story starts to get attention other people hear about it and read about it, and then it begins to be perceived as important and gets more attention over time. If one website or news agency reports on an event its competitors will too because they will worry about missing a story and thus losing credibility.  Some events will gain enough interest when they first occur to reach a critical mass and continue to be reported on, while others won’t get enough attention and will fall off the radar. At least in the internet age if you are really interested in a story you can look it up yourself, but the idea that the web would destroy traditional news providers seems to have been disproved. Most people are happy to be told what the news is, and won’t question why one thing is news and another is not.


Hold on, did Syria just invite a NATO attack?

Well it was only a matter of time until I wrote a blog about the Syria mess, so here it is.

Yesterday reports emerged stating that Syrian government forces had fired across the borders into Lebanon and Turkey. While Lebanon is probably used to its neighbours firing shots into its territory by now the situation with Turkey is potentially a game-changer, for a simple reason: Turkey is a member of NATO. If Turkey can claim that its territorial integrity is under threat (when another government starts shooting people inside your borders I’d say you’ve got a good case) then under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty its NATO allies are obliged to join the fight. Furthermore, NATO has already established a precedent for just such an operation without a mandate from the UN Security Council, so those pesky vetoes from Russia and China could be rendered meaningless. A NATO operation in Syria would arguably be more legitimate than the Kosovo one because it would be the result of an attack on a NATO member.

As long as the violence in Syria remained contained within its own borders then arguments for intervention could always be countered by the principle of sovereignty, but the moment those shots crossed the border a new justification became available to those who want intervention. Of course a few gunshots over a border might not seem like much of a threat to Turkey’s territory and the Syrian government can deny that it was their troops who fired. Nonetheless, the spread of violence beyond Syria itself indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of the crisis and offers a potential way to approach it outside of the confines of the UN Security Council system.

Whether intervention would be a wise idea is not a question I am going to go into here. I just wanted to point out the implications of the attacks in Turkey as I see them. With the failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan (gee, that was unexpected…) the idea of a diplomatic solution seems dead and buried, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of shift in Western powers’ approach to the crisis. It might be a good time to buy shares in the companies that make those fancy drones and smartbombs.