Watching the news from Syria over the past three years has been excruciating. An ancient nation is tearing itself apart, eagerly abetted by outside forces, and the civilian population is paying a horrific price.
The United States has made only halfhearted efforts to promote a negotiated solution in Syria. White House officials foolishly declared at the beginning of the crisis that the U.S. would deal only with factions that agreed — before any peace talks — that the Syrian regime must be deposed. That made it impossible for the U.S. to be a serious broker.
Pursuing that mistaken policy, the Americans decided that Iran, Syria’s largest neighbor and ally of the Assad regime, must be excluded from peace talks. Since any solution to the crisis would have to be regional, that decision effectively guaranteed that talks would never get off the ground. It is no wonder that the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, quit his job this month. He realizes that negotiations cannot work as long as the U.S. refuses to engage all parties to the conflict.
From the moment the Syrian crisis began three years ago, there have been voices in Washington urging direct American intervention. A coalition of old neoconservatives, who cling to the belief that American military power can solve the world’s problems, and humanitarian hawks, who wish to save the world’s oppressed, is still pressing that case. They have had trouble selling the idea of intervention to the American people. Now they are testing a new approach: we must intervene in Syria to prevent “another Rwanda.”
One of the most prominent human-rights hawks, Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, linked the two countries in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington this month. She listed steps the world had taken “to prevent what happened in Rwanda from recurring,” and then added: “But against all of this, there is Syria.”
This reference shocks us into paying attention. The world’s failure to intervene during the 1994 Rwandan genocide was a disgraceful episode that left an ineradicable stain on leaders including President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, French President François Mitterrand and U.N. Secretaries-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan. No person or nation would want to bear such a moral burden.
The word “Rwanda” has become a new code for interventionists. It is a simple term that is understood to carry a set of clear meanings, like “Munich” or “Pearl Harbor” or “Vietnam.” The meaning of “Rwanda” is: Don’t wait to intervene, otherwise a huge tragedy will ensue.
In fact, the situation in Syria has almost nothing in common with what unfolded in Rwanda 20 years ago. Arguing that the experience of Rwanda makes intervention in Syria more urgent requires a deep ignorance of what actually happened in Rwanda. This misunderstanding led us not to intervene to stop genocide there in 1994. Yet today, many in Washington seem just as ignorant as they were then.
The killing campaigns in Syria and Rwanda are totally different in both origin and nature.
Syria is involved in a true civil war, with armies of fighters with deeply held convictions at odds. Major factions are connected to outside forces, notably Al-Qaeda. This war is part of a wider regional conflict over complex issues such as the Sunni-Shia divide, secular versus religious rule and the Saudi-Iranian competition for regional dominance. Russia is as deeply involved as the United States.
None of this was true in Rwanda. The key misconception about the Rwandan genocide was that it was a case of “ancient hatreds” run amok, an explosion of nihilist violence that confirms classic Western stereotypes about Africa. In fact, this was neither a civil war nor a spontaneous uprising. It was a planned campaign of slaughter, was directed by a couple of dozen people, and could probably have been stopped by even a modest show of outside force.
The commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda, Gen. Roméo Dallaire, fully understood this. He believed that he could stop the killing with just a few thousand blue-helmeted soldiers and a robust mandate. Politicians in Washington, New York and Paris refused his pleas. The result was the death of up to a million people in the space of 100 days.
Another key difference: The Rwandan genocide was not connected to outside forces. Other than France — which trained, armed and supported the genocidal army — no foreign country, and certainly no global forces, would have objected to intervention in Rwanda. The exact opposite is true in Syria. American intervention there would set off a wildly unpredictable chain of reactions from violent regimes, militant armies and terror networks already involved in the crisis.
This does not mean that the United States should simply shrug its shoulders and look away while Syrians are being slaughtered. On the contrary, a genuine diplomatic effort could hold great promise. It would have to involve all interested countries and factions, and proceed with a fully open agenda.
Thus far, the United States has refused this course. When U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in January that Iran be invited to peace talks, American officials immediately slapped him down, and he had to withdraw his eminently reasonable proposal.
Many in Washington claim to be anguished by the carnage in Syria, but in fact the United States has made a clear decision: Awful as the bloodletting is, it would be even worse to negotiate with our perceived enemies or rivals. If we truly want to press for an end to the savagery in Syria, one good idea would be to sit down with all other interested parties. As long as we refuse to do that, our laments about the carnage ring hollow.
Bringing Rwanda into the equation may reflect plain ignorance. More likely, though, it is a move by those who want to push the United States into Syria’s civil war and think this tack could succeed where others have failed. This is not only insulting to the victims in Rwanda. It is a cynical attempt to drag the United States into another Middle East conflict without the slightest assurance that intervention would, in the long run, benefit suffering Syrians.