Hope, Wisdom, Law, Ethics, and Spirituality in relation to Killing and Dying: Persisting Syrian Dilemmas

12 Oct


            In appraising political developments most of us rely on trusted sources, our overall political orientation, what we have learned from past experience, and our personal hierarchy of hopes and fears. No matter how careful, and judicious, we are still reaching conclusions in settings of radical uncertainty, which incline our judgments to reflect a priori and interpretative biases. As militarists tends to favor reliance on force to resolve disputes among and within sovereign states, so war weary and pacifist citizens will seek to resolve even the most extreme dire conflict situations by insisting on the potentialities of non-violent diplomacy.


In the end, even in liberal democracies most of us are far too dependent on rather untrustworthy and manipulated media assessments to form our judgments about unfolding world events. How then should we understand the terrible ongoing ordeal of violence in Syria? The mainly polarized perceptions of the conflict are almost certain to convey one-sided false impressions that either the atrocities and violence are the work of a bloody regime that has a history of brutal oppression or that this hapless country has become the scene of a proxy war between irresponsible outsiders, with strong religious sectarian overtones of the Sunni/Shi’ia regional divide, and further complicated by various geopolitical alignments and the undisclosed ambitions of the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. Undoubtedly, the truth lies at some point between the two poles, with many ambiguities, undisclosed interferences, and assorted unknowns undermining our capacity to reach any ‘objective’ understanding, and leading many to discount the extremely dirty hands of all the major participants, seen and unseen, so as to permit a clear partisan position of being for or against.


The difficulties are even greater. If, in contrast, we seek to interpret the conflict from all angles with as much detachment as possible, the result is likely to be paralyzing so far as action is concerned. There is too much uncertainty, secrecy, and complexity to give rise to the clarity needed to shape policy with any confidence, and without confidence killing or allowing the killing to continue, no responsible conclusion can be reached. In effect, only over-simplification, that is, polarized interpretations, are capable of overcoming passivity, but at a high cost. Arguably, in relation to the Syrian maelstrom, passivity functions as a political virtue, or put differently, as the lesser of evils.  


In such a situation, assuming we repudiate proxy and geopolitical agendas as the desired bases for determining the future for Syria, what should we hope for? A rapid end of the violence, some sort of now unimaginable accommodation between the two (or many) sides in the struggle, a recognition by the various ‘interested’ third parties that their goals cannot be attained at acceptable costs, an abdication by Bashar al-Assad, an arms embargo uniformly enforced, the completely implausible emergence of constitutional democracy, including respect for minority rights. Merely composing such a wish list underscores the seeming hopelessness of resolving the situation in as acceptable manner, and yet we know that it will somehow be eventually resolved.


From the perspective of the Syrian factions and participants, so much of their own blood has been spilled, that it probably seems unacceptable and unreliable to be receptive at this point to any offer of reconciliation, and when the only hope is for either an unconditional victory for the self or the extermination of the other. And with such extremist attitudes, it is not surprising that the bodies keep piling up! What are we to do when every realistic trajectory adds to an outcome that is already tragic?


My approach in these situations of internal conflict has been to oppose and distrust the humanitarian and democratizing pretensions of those who counsel intervention under the alluring banner of ‘the responsibility to protect.’ (R2P) and other liberal rationales supportive of military intervention, what Noam Chomsky tellingly calls ‘military humanism.’ Yet in concrete situations such as existed in Kosovo in 1999, Libya in 2011, and Syria today, to counsel a passive international response to the most severe crimes against humanity and genocidal atrocities would seems to deny the most elemental ethical bonds of human solidarity in a networked, globalized world, bonds that may turn out in the near future to be indispensable if we are to achieve environmental sustainability before the planet burns us to a crisp.


            There are structural issues arising from the statist character of world order in the post-colonial era that make political choices in such situations of bitter internal conflict a tragic predicament. On the one side, is the statist logic that endows territorial governments with unconditional authority to sustain their unity in the face of insurgent challenges, a political principle given constitutional backing in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, prohibiting UN intervention in internal conflicts. This statist logic is deeply confused and contradicted by legitimizing the inalienable and emancipatory right of self-determination conferred on every ‘people,’ and not on governments. In the background, as well, are the various non-Western collective memories, uniformly bad, of colonial rule, and wellfounded contemporary suspicions that humanitarian interventions, however described and unwittingly, represent attempted colonialist revivals, both ideologically and behaviorally.  


On the other side of the policy fence, there is an odd coalition of liberal internationalists who sincerely regard intervention as an essential tool for the promotion of a more humane world along with more cynical geopolitical strategists who regard conflict zones, especially where large oil reserves exist, as targets of opportunity for extending Western interests. Further, normative confusion arises from the drift of practice on the part of the UN that has been understood to vest in the Security Council unlimited competence to interpret the Charter as it wishes. (See World Court decision in the Lockerbie case, which coincidentally involved Libya) In this regard, the rhetoric of human rights has been used to circumvent the Charter limits restricting UN competence to address conflicts internal to states: for instance, the Security Council in 2011 authorized a ‘No Fly Zone’ for Libya that was immediately converted by the NATO intervenors into a de facto mandate for ‘regime change’; the whole undertaking was validated for most advocates of the broadened undertaking because it freed Libya from a murderous dictatorship; others approved, believing that the operation involved a proper invocation of the R2P norm, and still others endorsed the intervention on the basis of its supposed post-conflict state-building successes, avoiding chaos, and especially the rather impressive efforts to base the governance of Libya on democratic procedures. As the situation continues to evolve, there exists controversy as to how to assess the positive and negative aspects of post-Qaddafi Libya.


In evaluating our positions for or against a given intervention, should our sense of strategic motivations matter? For instance, the Kosovo intervention was at least partially motivated by the desire in Washington and among many European elites to show that NATO was still useful despite the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that generated the alliance in the first place. Do such strategic considerations matter if indeed the people of Kosovo were spared the kind of ethnic cleansing endured not long before by the people of Bosnia, culminating in the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995? Might it not be claimed that only when strategic incentives exist, will an intervention be of sufficient magnitude to be effective? In effect, altruism alone will not produce effective forms of humanitarian intervention. Does the existence of double standards matter? Certain crimes against humanity generate an interventionary response while others are overlooked, for instance, the persisting collective punishment of the people of Gaza. Should we drink from a glass that is only half full? The same question applies to the recent surge of criminal prosecutions under the authority of the International Criminal Court.


There are other ways of evaluating what has taken place. For example, should the consequences of intervention or non-intervention color our assessments of the policy choice? Let’s say that Kosovo evolves in a constructive direction of respect for human rights, including those of the Serbian minority, or in contrast, becomes repressive towards of its minority population. Do we, should we, retrospectively reexamine our earlier view on what it was preferable to do back in 1999? And finally, should we give priority to the postulates of human solidarity, what might be called ‘moral globalization,’ or to the primacy of self-determination as the best hope that peoples of the world have of achieving emancipatory goals, recognizing that the grand strategies of the geopolitical actors are indifferent, at best, and often hostile to such claims?


My argument reduces to this: in such a global setting we cannot avoid making disastrous mistakes, but to renounce the effort to find the preferred course of action, we should not withdraw from politics and throw up our hands in frustration. We can expose false claims, contradictions, double standards, and we can side with those who act on behalf of emancipatory goals, while not being insensitive to the complexity, and even contradictions, of ‘emancipation’ in many political settings. There are often ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides from the perspective of international morality, international law, and global justice, but not always. When all sides seem deeply ‘wrong’ as in Syria, the dilemmas for the engaged global citizen is heightened to the point where the only responsible posture may be one of humility and an acknowledgement of radical uncertainty. In such circumstances, the most salient moral imperative is to refrain from acts that are likely to intensify the violence, intensify suffering, and increase dying and klling. This may not be a heroic political posture, but it may offer the most constructive response to a particular mix of circumstances, minimizing prospects of further escalation.


            Finally, it is not very helpful to observe, ‘time will tell whether this was the best response.’ Perhaps, we can learn for the future about factors overlooked that might have altered our assessment, but our past decision was based on what we knew and perceived at that time, and should not be revised by taking account of subsequent developments. In some situations, such as the many struggles of oppressed and occupied peoples, it seems desirable to be hopeful even in the face of the realization that the eventual outcome could bring deep disappointment. We should, I feel, as often as possible be guided by our hopes and beliefs even when, as nearly always, we are confronted by the dilemmas of radical uncertainty. We should also do our best not to be manipulated by those media savvy ‘realists’ who stress fears, claim a convergence of benevolence and interests, exaggerate the benefits of military superiority, and especially in America serve as the self-appointed chief designers of exploitative patterns of geopolitically shaped security.


            With hope we can often overcome uncertainty with desire, and engage in struggles for a just and sustainable future that celebrates human potential for moral growth, political enhancement, and spiritual wisdom.

            Without hope we fall victim to despair and will be carried along with the historical current that is leading nation, society, civilization, species, and world toward catastrophe.

 We live in what can be described both as the Information Age and cope daily with information overload. We are supposed to shape policy on the basis of knowledge, yet when it comes to crucial issues such war/peace or climate change, we act and advocate without sufficient knowledge, or even ignore an informed consensus, and what is worse, we put aside law, ethics, and our spiritual sensitivities.

Finally, to think, act, and feel as a citizen pilgrim provides the necessary foundation for hope, and its two sisters, wisdom and spirituality.

17 Responses to “Hope, Wisdom, Law, Ethics, and Spirituality in relation to Killing and Dying: Persisting Syrian Dilemmas”

  1. peripamir October 12, 2012 at 3:12 am #

    Dear Richard,

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Syrian case and the pitfalls you mention regarding the consequences of any form of humanitarian intervention (because such an act will invariably play into some undeserving hands), it seems to me that the absolute priority is to somehow stop the bloodbath that is claiming thousands of innocent lives. I firmly believe that the inability to do this is the greatest failing of the international community. I also suspect, despite other cynical assessments to the contrary, that the desire to help “end” the conflict sooner was the prime motivation of the Turkish govt at the outset. Sadly, whether there is outside intervention or not, the uncertain consequences you mention will ensue anyhow..

  2. Ray Joseph Cormier October 12, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not Love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

    And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all Knowledge; and though I have all Faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Love, I am nothing.

    And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Love, it profits me nothing.

    Love suffers long, and is kind; Love is not jealous; Love does not boast, is not puffed up,
    Does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil;
    Rejoices not in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the Truth;
    Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    Love never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be Knowledge, it shall vanish away.

    For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
    But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be no more.

    When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

    For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
    And NOW abides Faith, Hope, Love, these three; but THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.

    1 Corinthians 13

  3. rehmat1 October 13, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    I will let an Malaysian academic and anti-war activist, Dr. Chandra Muzzafar, expose the real evil-doers behind the Syrian killings.


  4. Barry Meridian October 13, 2012 at 5:52 am #

    What Falk is saying, it doesn’t matter how many thousands of civilians Assad kills, as long as Assad is Pro Iran, Falk will support him.
    If Israel responded to the thousands of terrorists rockets Hamas is firing from Gaza into Israel and if Israel responded to the rockets the way Assad is responding.
    Falk would say Israel is commiting genocide.
    Because Assad is seen as Pro Iran and anti Western, Falk’s type of people, Falk will always support Assad.

    • Ray Joseph Cormier October 13, 2012 at 6:15 am #

      Your preconceived hatred for Richard Falk is blinding you to what he is saying in this piece.

    • monalisa October 13, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      to Barry Meridian:

      either you didn’t read Prof. Falk’s essay completely or you don’t understand the English language.


  5. monalisa October 13, 2012 at 7:58 am #

    Dear Richard,
    your essay on present blood sheds and if and how foreign countries are involved is very thoughtful.

    However, as already confirmed by the Obama administration USA is supporting with some millions of US$ the Syrian rebels.
    So the case is to me very clear – and I think to many others too.

    I cannot think of one so-called “democratic” Western country who was able to have so many different ethnic/religious groups in one country without too much bloodshed and aggression.
    Yet this will go away and make place for the so-called “enforced democratization” under the lead of the USA.

    How sad these developments and how sad the USA has since the end of the Cold War started to use openly military forces in far too many places.
    Wheras the foreign death poll don’t count at all.

    What would have happened if at the US revolution a foreign country would have intervened ???
    Or in Europe with its many revolutions ?

    If have my own doubts if Turkey will act for the benefit of its own state and population because it has to obey US NATO commander orders. And this could lead into a very difficult situation for the country. Also the two countries Turkey and Saudi Arabia both want to have some sort of “rule” in the Middle East. Whereas Egypt drifts away from Saudi Arabia and Turkey I think.

    Peace efforts are the best way in order to achieve peace. And countries calling for “military forces” in order to achieve peace are usually veiling their own games.

    Take care of yourself,


    • Ray Joseph Cormier October 13, 2012 at 8:14 am #

      monalisa, if there is any respect for Truth and Posterity, the Spirit and reality of what is happening in Syria Today is this ancient letter sent to humans so long ago as a warning now come alive.

      The purpose is so people Today might pause and take a closer 2nd look, reforming their attitudes and behaviour before the worst comes to pass.

      The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap………………………………………

      At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.
      And he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands, neither shall respect that which his fingers have made, either the groves, or the images…………………………………….. Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters!
      The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters:

      February 27, 2012

    • Richard Falk October 14, 2012 at 8:03 am #

      Dear monalisa:

      You are ever wise! I find Syria too complex and opaque to pretend to understand, although
      I grieve for the people. I am in Istanbul, and yesterday listened to the Turkish Foreign
      Minister give a very convincing account of the principled basis of the Turkish response
      to Syria and the Arab upheavals more generally.

      with warm wishes,


      • Ray Joseph Cormier October 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

        Richard, would you care to paraphrase according to your best memory this convincing account of the principled basis of the Turkish response to what is happening in Syria?

  6. rehmat1 October 14, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Barack Obama’s special envoy to Lebanon and Syria, Frederick Hof, who resigned from his post earlier this week – in a confidential document leaked this week has claimed that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak conducted intensive secret talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through him.

    According to Frederick Hof, the negotiations were based on Netanyahu’s willingness to return to June 4, 1967 lines, giving Damascus full control of the Golan Heights which was occupied by the Jewish army during its 1967 invasion of its neighboring Arab lands. What Netanyahu demanded in return was a comprehensive peace deal that would include an Israeli “expectation” for the severing ties between Damascus and Tehran. However, according to the US sources, the deal fell-apart as Bashar refused to severe his friendly ties with the Islamic Republic.


  7. Albert Guillaume October 14, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    If the west had not ignited the powderkeg, that is called Syria and stayed out of its internal affairs, the Syrians would have been able to solve their problems amongst themselves.
    The way I see it, the US has the military power and Israel the monetary and financial one, which it uses effectively through AIPAC to manipulate the US. There also seems an overlooked factor at play here and that is the Islamic resistance to subjugation of its banks and monetary institutions to the will of the international bankers.
    I am surprised, that nobody on this forum has ever mentioned it. I find it naive to think, that religious convictions trump financial interests especially in the west, where Christianity seems to have sacrificed its basic principles on the altar of the Mammon.
    Divide and conquer is the weapon of the west, as this has proven itself to be so successful for the establishment of the British empire in the past. I think that, if Israel exchanged its domineering and expansionist policies for a true desire for peace and security, that the safety of its citizens would be far more secure than what can be achieved through its present policies, even under the most ideal set of circumstances.
    Just recently I read, what is called ‘the transfer agreement, which is very controversial, to say the least, but is certainly food for thought.
    Somehow it seems to be intertwined with the world politics, as they are unfolding at an ever increasing rate of speed, as if its success depends on a ‘Blitzkrieg’ kind of tactic.
    Here I think it is quite fitting to quote Sir Walter Scott, when he said: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive”. And deception is the ace in the game.

  8. Heidi Morrison October 15, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    Thank you for writing down the internal confusion so many of us have been having about the ethics of intervention. Unpacking the box of conflicting ideas about intervention is a first step and prevents us from falling prey to “media savvy realists.” Ultimately, if I understood correctly, you are saying we should humbly admit our uncertainties and do what minimizes the most bloodshed. So now I await another piece which says what you think that that risk is we should take…

    (Perhaps subtle but very important is the piece from your article about the need to figure out how to all get along so we can make global “solidarity” in time to save the world form global warming.)

  9. Heidi Morrison October 15, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    or maybe the risk you are saying we should take is we should not intervene, but expose, expose and expose some more – and with this exposure we, as citizens of the world, will direct ourselves to an outcome that is not catastrophic.

    • Richard Falk October 16, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

      Thanks Heidi for these comments. Syria is such a difficult challenge with so many unknowns, but yes, I think the best we can do at present is to exert influence to every extent to stop the violence, and refrain from the illusion that doing something militarily will restore peace and bring justice at last to the people of Syria.


  1. Hope, Wisdom, Law, Ethics, and Spirituality in relation to Killing and Dying: Persisting Syrian Dilemmas |  SHOAH - October 14, 2012

    […] By Richard Falk […]

  2. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Hope, Wisdom, Law, Ethics, and Spirituality in Relation to Killing and Dying: Persisting Syrian Dilemmas - October 15, 2012

    […] Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).Go to Original – richardfalk.comClick to share this article: facebook | twitter | email. Click here to download this article as a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: