In Syria, we are seeing a lesson first taught in ancient Greece when Athens destroyed the city of Melos. The Melian dialogue is well remembered for the powerful sentence that the strong do as they will; the weak do as they must. As such, it also helps to explain why Russia and China have chosen not to allow the United Nations to end the bloodshed or authorise military action to that effect.
The Syrian situation is like the Melian dialogue, in a sense, because the Syrian government is acting like the Athenian government in its wish to crush any opposition to its rule. The situation in Syria is deteriorating. The Syrian government forces are killing more civilians. The regime is killing its own people and there is no common good for the Syrian people.
Do just regimes slaughter their own citizens?
Syria is in a civil war. The forces loyal to Assad are killing those opposed to his rule. Like his father before him, Bashir al-Assad is butchering his own people. In itself, this is a tragic crime. What makes it worse is that the Russian and Chinese regimes are aiding and abetting the slaughter of civilians. However, this is not surprising. The Russian and the Chinese regimes are known for their disregard for human life. One can almost sense a joyous viciousness within their regime leaders as they see their political opponents destroyed. To their thinking, their political way of life, the Assad regime is conducting itself as they would conduct their own affairs.
This is not ideology, this is politics
Neither China nor Russia has a strong record on human rights for their own citizens let alone those who are considered enemies of the state. One only need to look at what the Russians did in Grozny to realize that their behaviour is not an ideological motive driven by adherence to Communist political theory. At the same time, one only need to note how China kills prisoners, harvests and sells their organs to realize that this is not ideology. Instead, we need to understand that these regimes are tyrannical based upon an absolute hatred for anyone opposed to their rule. As such, they can support Assad’s regime with equanimity because they see it just as politics.
Remember the effort that is required to have decent politics
In the liberal democratic West, we live with the assumption (blessing?) that politics is a playful activity without seriousness beyond who gets what, when, and how. What the situation in Syria reminds us of and illustrates dramatically is that politics is a deadly serious practice. It can literally be a matter of life and death. Yet, if we only believe that or live by that as they do in Syria and China, we forget the fundamental promise of Western political philosophy-the opportunity to have decent politics. We believe, or have achieved, the idea that the ballot and not the bullet determines how our regime works. We believe, and live within, regimes of decent politics. Yet, we need to realize the savagery of politics so that we can sustain the democratic belief. The savagery in Syria reminds us that sometimes the bullet is the only way to let the ballot exist.
How do we achieve justice?
What we need to understand and remind ourselves in the Melian dialogue and the Syrian tragedy is Thucydides second sentence. Most everyone remembers the first sentence, mentioned earlier, but few recall what he wrote next.
Only between equals can there be justice
The liberal democratic west has achieved, to a point, the hope implicit within Thucydides second sentence. We are not at the end of history nor are we seeing the world split into civilisation and savagery as some commentators may suggest. Instead, we are seeing the international system working to show and respond to the highest aspirations within the idea of democracy. The democratic ideal is that people can live freely together as equals. In a democracy, we can live without the fear that those who control the state will see us as slaves and rule us as masters. What we are seeing is a dark reminder of what can happen if we fail to uphold that belief.
The politics of a regime often determine its foreign policy
What we see today is how Russia and China have stopped the United Nation from fulfilling this core belief. The United Nations is predicated upon the belief that between equals there can be justice. Yet, Russia and China are focused on sustaining the Assad regime. The implicit reason, which is the same reason Assad is killing his own people, is that China, and to a lesser extent Russia, realize that their regimes are as suspect. Neither China nor Russia has a just regime where citizens can interact as equals before the law and before each other. In Syria, Assad cannot offer equality to his opponents. He cannot offer a vision of a Syrian common good. He is no longer a tyrant open to persuasion. He can only be removed by force.
The Syrian regime, like the Athenian regime at Melos, is likely to win this engagement. They are going to reduce Homs to rubble and kill the inhabitants that resist. The uprising will be crushed. Yet, the struggle will not end.
All tyrants face a choice: reform or die.
Assad cannot escape his fate. His future choices are either to kill all real or potential opponents or change his regime. He is unable and unwilling change his regime. He is unable and unwilling to stop being a tyrant. He now lives in the shadow of a future uprising. He lives in the shadow of an assassination. The tide is turning because his supporters are beginning to realise that their fate can be changed if they remove Assad. If they remove Assad, they might be able to stay in a privileged position, if not in power. Most importantly, for them, they will stay alive. However, the Syrian cannot be changed except through revolution.
Syria reminds the West what can happen to politics if there is no justice
In the West, we have lived with an idea that people are created equal and rulers are chosen through the consent of the people. In turn, the rulers are ruled by the ruled through the democratic process of elections that change the parties in power. We now have a basis for continued and expanding freedom through democratic laws, institutions, and elections of representatives to act on our behalf for the common good. Yet, that continued success is under threat in Syria and other places around the world where oppression and inequality manifest themselves. In Syria, we see the choice of our future. We can live by the Thucydides’ first sentence or we can live as equals and live by justice. Our future is in our hands. The choice is ours. Those dying in Syria today are reminding us of the consequences of that choice.