Syria’s Conflict Is Not Like Rwanda
The similarities are, in fact, far from striking….Moreover, there is a limit to even American power and even American presidents charged with commanding the world’s mightiest military have to keep one eye upon domestic public opinion. And the fact is that there is no more desire for American intervention in Syria than there was in Rwanda (or the Congo).
One crucial difference between U.S. responses to Rwanda in 1994 and to Syria now is that in ’94 the U.S. was not still in the midst of fighting the longest war in its history, it hadn’t just lost many thousands of soldiers killed and tens of thousands of wounded in two prolonged wars, and its military was not yet overburdened and strained by more than a decade of constant fighting. Once the U.S. commits to providing weapons to the Syrian opposition, it won’t withdraw its support later on, and it will in all likelihood be pulled into escalating American involvement until the U.S. is directly involved in the fighting in some way. So any assessment of U.S. policy towards Syria that fails to take the public’s war-weariness and the strains on the military into account is bound to be badly flawed. Another flaw in comparing Rwanda and Syria is that advocates for intervention in Syria very much want the U.S. and its allies to help groups drawn mostly from the majority sect prevail in the war, which could expose Syrian minority communities to the sort of attacks suffered by Tutsis in Rwanda. Having presided over the brutal sectarian violence in Iraq that the invasion and occupation unleashed, Americans would have to be crazy to want to contribute to a similar outcome in Syria, and fortunately the vast majority of Americans wants the U.S. to have no part in this conflict.
It’s possible that a timely, relatively small intervention in Rwanda might have been able to halt much of the genocide. (It should be noted here that the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] at the time rejected foreign intervention*.) That sort of intervention was never available in the Syrian case, and it still isn’t. What many advocates propose for Syria (e.g., arming the opposition, bombing regime targets, etc.) isn’t likely to halt or reduce violence in the country, but is instead designed to enable more of it. The primary interventionist goal in Syria has always been to bring about the collapse of the existing government, regardless of whether that prolongs the conflict or what that might mean for the civilian population on either side.
In any case, Who lost Syria? is an idiotic question to ask or even hint about asking. Even a hegemon has its limits and while there may be costs to inaction they are at least much easier to value than the unknown and unpredictable costs of action.
* Gerard Prunier describes the RPF position this way in his valuable Africa’s World War:
But what is in a way more interesting was the apparent global disdain of the RPF for the safety of the Tutsi victims. RPF soldiers of course helped Tutsi civilians threatened by Interhamwe when they would chance upon them, but they never planned their military operations so as to try saving as many as possible. And when there was talk of a foreign intervention force to stop the genocide, although it was a very dim possibility, the RPF unambiguously opposed it, to the dismay of some longtime human rights activists who had fought for the lives of the Tutsi civilians since 1990. (p. 15)