The downside of taking sides in the Middle East is that democratic states which value individual freedom often need to ally themselves with undemocratic states against other undemocratic states. It also means that the occasionally selective adherence to international norms is publicly highlighted. To the uninitiated, this looks hypocritical, but in the Middle East, one person's hypocrisy is another's pragmatism.
In the case of Syria, both these anomalies are readily apparent. In trying to dislodge the undemocratic Assad from Damascus, Washington has had to rely on the largesse of several of its close yet undemocratic regional allies, who sometimes band together in the Arab League. On Syria, the Arab League is doing what it does best: sub-contracting out responsibility. In this case the sub-contractor is Washington. Or at least that's the way it appeared when John Kerry advised Congress that 'Some of them (Arab League states) have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost. That's how dedicated they are to this.'
'Dedicated' in the way a rich kid pays someone to do their homework or take a fitness test, I would argue.
Of course the League doesn't always sub-contract responsibility for military action, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE showed when they provided troops to Bahrain to quell protests calling for democratic reforms. But we'll leave that issue aside for the time being.
One Syria-related issue that could prove a diplomatic cowpat for incoming foreign minister Julie Bishop to step around is Australia's very public support for the Arms Trade Treaty. How Australia maintains its lead on the Treaty as it cooperates with states which ignore it will be interesting to see. A case in point is the fact that, just as Human Rights Watch has condemned the Syrian Government for the use of Russian-made cluster munitions over the past year, the US (not a signatory to the Cluster Munitions Convention) has recently inked a deal to sell more than $600 million worth of US-manufactured cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia.
And while there has been close scrutiny over Russia's official, semi-official and unofficial military support to Syria, there has been much less made of the flow of weapons to opposition forces. How will our new foreign minister reconcile our lead on the Arms Treaty with our silence on the illicit weapons flows into Syria from our friends and allies? And what position do we take on the US providing weapons to one side in a conflict that has already taken over 100,000 lives?
As I said at the start, in dealing with the Middle East there are no hypocrites, only pragmatists.
Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.