Violent interventions in the sovereign space of other states are rapidly becoming a familiar feature of contemporary global politics.
On 20 September 2007, Antoine Ghanim became the latest victim of a series of political attacks targeting Lebanese MPs and journalists well-known for their critical stance towards Syria. By this point, no one really doubts the involvement of the Syrian intelligence services in these attacks. The spectacular character of the attacks, more akin targeted bombings than assassinations, is evidently meant to send to Lebanese politicians the message that although Syria’s armed forces may have been obliged to withdraw from Lebanon, Damascus still calls the shots.
The US, UK, France and the EU have all quite rightly condemned the attack, which not only has the effect of derailing the difficult process of agreeing a new President to replace the pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, but also once again undermines Lebanese sovereignty at its most fundamental level. As a weak state, Lebanon has always been susceptible to foreign influence and intervention, whether directed from Damascus, Tel Aviv or Washington. But the use of violence as an instrument of politics has steadily waned since the end of the civil war. Now, violence perpetrated by an external power threatens to destabilize the delicate equilibrium currently in place.
Ironically enough, the violence stems from the country whose presence in Lebanon has effectively guaranteed that equilibrium since the Taif Accords. The Pax Syriana, as Syria’s imposed hegemony over Lebanon has come to be known, made sure that everyone knew the rules of the game, and stuck to them. Now that this ‘peace’ has been disrupted, violence once again appears as actors attempt to re-establish not only the rules of the game, but what the game is in the first place.
While the wisdom of Syria’s tactics in Lebanon – not to mention the extent to which Syria’s President Bashar is involved in their planning – is debatable, when the wider context of regional politics is considered, Syria’s political strategy by no means qualifies as exceptional.
Violent interventions in the sovereign space of other states are rapidly becoming a familiar feature of contemporary global politics, a rule increasingly honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Israel reserves the right to carry out air-strikes on Syrian territory with no apparent need for explanation or justification. Details of the latest such attack, near the northern Syrian town of al-Raqqa on 6 September, have so failed to slip through the tight grip of Israeli military censorship, though rumours of clandestine nuclear activity are rife.
In the post-9/11 world, ‘security considerations’ do not simply trump the principles of international law, but are used to create a space in which those ideals are suspended and do not apply. The murky legal status of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the institutionalized use of torture in Abu Ghraib, the extraordinary renditions of suspected terrorists, the blind eye turned to Israel’s summer war on the Lebanese people – all these are not so much black holes in the liberal order as increasingly necessary conditions of its existence.
Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben has written of the way in which such exceptionalism is an increasingly normalized part of the workings of global politics. Our reasoning is that our own liberty is so precious that at times it must be defended by illiberal measures: we accept the unacceptable as we fear the alternative may be worse. Yet the more often we accept such steps, the more normalized they become, and the less we have a solid position from which to criticise them.
Given our own blithe acceptance of the political, physical and legal violence which we have perpetrated in line with our own perceived security needs, there are few moral grounds upon which we can criticise others who share our own sense of political rationality.
Associate Fellow, RUSI
School of Oriental and African Studies
The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI