Syrian crisis shows public opinion cannot be ignored

The strong anti-war sentiments in the West are at odds with the ruthless attitude of Bashar Al Assad and the chemical weapons at his disposal.

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In 1983, as many Europeans opposed the deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe to counter those of the Soviet Union, French President François Mitterrand famously declared in Brussels: "Pacifism is in the West and the Euromissiles are in the East. I consider that an unequal relationship."

Mr Mitterrand's remark could easily be adapted to Syria: the pacifists are in Europe and the United States and the chemical weapons are in the hands of Bashar Al Assad. An international agreement brokered by Russia for control of Syrian chemical weapons may change that in the near future, and has momentarily, perhaps indefinitely, derailed an American assault against Syria.

The consequences of anti-war sentiment and the intensity with which it has been expressed, despite signs that the Syrian regime's deployment of chemical weapons killed many innocent civilians, have been disturbing. A poll published by The Daily Telegraph last week showed that a majority in the United Kingdom opposed bombing Syria even if the regime used such weapons.

It is hard to see how states can enforce international norms of behaviour when such attitudes prevail, especially when there is no United Nations route because of divisions in the Security Council. The "democratisation" of the aims of war had led to consequences both "disastrous and revolutionary," wrote American journalist Walter Lippmann in The Public Philosophy. "The democracies became incapacitated to wage war for rational ends and to make peace which could be observed or could be enforced," he observed.

While an attack against Syria has been delayed or averted, that doesn't change the fact that western leaders today find themselves with much less latitude to confront the Al Assad regime.

On Monday, the US Secretary of State John Kerry pathetically described what was then still an impending attack as "unbelievably small," to rally support for an effort otherwise intended to alarm and deter Mr Al Assad.

The Syrian president probably interpreted the accord over Syria's chemical stockpiles as a victory, a chance to buy time, even if his acceptance was an admission that he had such weapons, which Syria had denied. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama acknowledged that he might not have the votes needed to authorise military intervention.

The Syrian crisis has shown that the public, whatever its choices, must never be taken lightly. Mr Lippmann's misgivings notwithstanding, democracy is about informing and preparing the public, even if the difficult decisions are ultimately taken by elected leaders. And Mr Obama, like Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK and President Francois Hollande of France never adequately explained the stakes in Syria to his sceptical compatriots.

For two years Mr Obama dithered, indicating that the Syrian conflict had no real bearing on the United States. That this was false, that the Syrian situation had a direct impact on American interests and allies in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, was never seriously addressed by administration officials. Over 100,000 people have been killed, but Mr Obama only woke up recently.

Mr Obama has made America's withdrawal from Middle Eastern conflicts a core theme of his presidency. Therefore, it was not surprising to see the public puzzled by, and resistant to, the president's turnaround. If American apathy toward the suffering in Syria is troubling, the greater share of the blame lies with Mr Obama, who failed to prepare the ground for his sudden shift in attitude

And yet the US president could have learnt from his British counterpart, Mr Cameron, the first to pay for the anti-war mood in the West. The prime minister initially declared that he did not require parliamentary approval for an attack in Syria. He then backtracked and went to parliament, before having to accept a Labour condition that two sessions be held for authorisation. He was defeated in the first, and opted not to participate in a military operation.

Mr Cameron misread his party's and the public's mood. While the British government has been more vocal on Syria than the Obama administration, it too failed to persuade voters that the Syrian conflict harmed British interests. Mr Obama and Mr Cameron paid an additional price for the mistrust generated by George W Bush and Tony Blair after they presented misleading justifications for the 2003 war in Iraq.

Regardless of the shortcomings of political leaders or governments, the principle of imposing normative guidelines for state behaviour internationally is based on an expectation of public outrage if these norms are undermined. In fact an underlying premise of international law - the same law opponents of American intervention in Syria held up to avert an attack - is that the general good is served by implementing universal moral and ethical values.

As lawyers Robert Howse and Ruti Teitel have argued, the UN Charter does not prohibit all uses of force, only those harming a state's territorial integrity or political independence, or that contravene UN principles. "Promoting and encouraging respect for human rights, including the right to life, are also among the UN's purposes, as stated in Article One of the Charter," they write.

Refusing to react to the killing in Syria is, therefore, all the more disconcerting when it is held up as a defence of international law. If a more normative world is what western societies seek, then they should have acknowledged long ago that Syria was an exception to this rule, and that their indifference was disgraceful.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.