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Recognizing Genocide

By Taylor Marvin

At The Spectator, Alex Massie argues that Syria is not “Obama’s Rwanda”, a conclusion Daniel Larison seconds. But the biggest problem with allusions linking the West’s failure to act in Rwanda to its current inaction in Syria isn’t the post-Rwanda precedent of the Iraq War that makes the American public even more hesitant to intervene in outbursts of ethnic violence. Instead, the greatest distinction is that the Syrian crisis is not a genocide. Recently Erica Chenoweth and Oliver Kaplan addressed the inappropriateness of the term genocide to describe Syria’s violence:

“A more appropriate term might be politicide, where violence is directed against political opponents. But these days, it is also clear that the Free Syrian Army and its militia affiliates are themselves responsible for plenty of deaths as well, meaning that it is a civil war (albeit a lopsided/asymmetric one) by any conventional standard.”

This is entirely true. While the Syrian conflict has a clear ethnic dimension, Assad’s war crimes targeting the opposition and civilians do not meet the criteria of genocide. Given that armed opposition groups appear to be a serious threat to regime military forces it’s unclear if Assad actually possesses the capacity to pursue a genocidal campaign, even if he desired to.

But if the Assad regime’s brutality doesn’t meet the criteria for genocide, why is it frequently referred to as such? Actual campaigns of genocide are comparatively rare, but this rarity is obscured by the popular and academic attention the genocides that do occur rightly attract. Given the popular attention devoted to the horrors of genocide it isn’t surprising that the term is often abused. First, as Chenoweth and Kaplan note, both Syrian and international advocates of intervention in Syria have an incentive to portray the conflict as one-sided as possible, an asymmetric gravity the term “genocide” certainly conveys. Secondly, there really isn’t another commonly-recognized term that conveys the horror of large-scale killings that nevertheless fall short of genocide. Chenoweth and Kaplan’s “politicide” isn’t in common usage, and anyway — unlike “genocide” — doesn’t specify the scale of violence. Similarly, in the public mind the more accurate designation of “war crimes” is more-often understood as reference to smaller-scale atrocities like the Mai Lai massacre, rather than systematic violence. In the absence of a better, popularly understood term for massive, long-term systematic terror campaigns, the ultimate designation of genocide will continue to be abused.

This is problematic for two main reasons. First, abusing the term disrespects the victims of actual genocides, whether Armenians, European Jews or Slavs, or Rwandan Tutsis, among many others. Of course, this isn’t to say that the suffering and loss victims of non-genocide war crimes experience is any less than the victims of genocide, but it is important to recognize that genocides are horribly unique. Linking the Syrian civil war with the Holocaust obscures more than it reveals. Secondly, because using the term genocide as a catch-all for large-scale war crimes lessens its impact in the popular imagination, this practice makes it easier for policymakers to ignore future genocides.

Applying the term genocide to the Syrian crisis today is particularly problematic because it may be terribly applicable in the future. Again, while this doesn’t disparage the suffering of today’s victims of violence — whether inflicted by the regime, the opposition, or third parties — deeming the conflict “genocide” now will lessen the term’s impact if it ever does actually apply. If Assad is overthrown Syria’s Alawite minority will likely face extensive, bloody reprisals. Depending on the scale of these reprisals Syria could witness a genocide, though one that targets the supporters, not opponents, of the regime. Unfortunately, this outcome of the war has become more likely the longer the conflict has dragged on. Even if the opposition is unable to actually overthrow Assad the regime will likely be unable to ever regain its pre-crisis control over the country — too many Syrians are too bitterly opposed to the regime, and too many weapons have flowed into Syria for Assad’s government to ever again effectively administer the entire country. This future weak state capacity throughout Syria will be conductive to ethnic violence by anti-regime militants. If Assad is overthrown, former rebels will be able to pursue reprisal campaigns targeting Alawites with even greater impunity.

If genocide targeting Alawites does occur in Syria, it will be very difficult for the international community to prevent or halt. Even if a victorious opposition is engaged in genocidal violence against communities perceived as regime partisans, if will be difficult for international leaders to convince their own domestic audiences of the necessity to oppose the previously-victimized opposition they once supported. Similarly, Western leaders have little leverage over the Syrian opposition that perceives itself as abandoned by the outside world today; if the opposition manages to unseat Assad without decisive outside help, the international community will likely have no leverage to prevent reprisal campaigns. While the outcome of the Syrian crisis remains uncertain, international organizations should begin to examine their options for preventing genocide should the regime fall.

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  1. Comparing Genocides | Smoke & Stir

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