The crisis in Syria has everyone talking about military interventions. When should the United States intervene militarily to enforce an international norm or stop a humanitarian catastrophe? When will intervening make things better? Worse? And if the United States is going to use force in Syria, why not use military force in other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the human suffering is arguably just as bad?
That last question is not just an academic one. President Obama himself has compared the case for military intervention in Syria to the case for intervening in Congo, where a civil war has claimed more than 5 million lives. Here’s a revealing excerpt from an interview he gave to The New Republic in January:
“In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” [emphasis added]
One of my first reactions to this is: thank goodness President Obama isn’t oblivious to the war in Congo. (At Brilliant Earth, we follow the Congolese civil war closely because it is being fueled by mining for gold and other precious metals.) And it’s probably good that he is able to think, in the same sentence, about the suffering in Congo and Syria. Too often, I get the impression that people in developed countries don’t weigh the loss of African lives as much as they weigh the loss of lives elsewhere. Regardless of how you feel about military interventions, or about President Obama, we should all be able to agree that peoples’ lives everywhere should matter.
But another natural reaction is: so has President Obama actually given serious consideration to an American intervention against rebels in Congo? And if in January he thought that the case for intervening in Congo was neck-in-neck with the one for intervening against Assad in Syria, what has changed? What would he say today?
What Has Changed in Congo
The difference can’t be just the scale of the humanitarian disaster. Although the fighting in Syria has intensified, the suffering in Congo is enormous and remains on par with the catastrophe in Syria, maybe worse. Chemical weapons haven’t been used, but plenty of other international norms have been broken. Rebel soldiers have been using sexual violence as an instrument of war. Children are being forced to fight as child soldiers. More than 2.6 million people have been internally displaced (the refugee in crisis in Syria actually may be worse) and hundreds of thousands of people are living in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Overall, the civil war in Congo, which dates to 1998, has lasted much longer than the one in Syria. And with an estimated 5 million deaths, mostly due to disease and starvation, it has probably been deadlier. Congo’s civil war, in fact, has been called the world’s worst war.
Both countries, clearly, have a lot of humanitarian need. And the consequences of intervening militarily in either place are uncertain – and might not all be positive. So why, then, is Obama now serious about intervening in Syria? Based on what he has been saying, it is because Syria has used chemical weapons. When the Syrian government used chemical weapons to kill more than 1000 people in August, it crossed what President Obama called a “red line.”
But there’s been another change in circumstances since January, a development that deserves attention and that helps explain why the idea of an American intervention in Congo has probably fallen off Obama’s radar, if it was ever there. And it’s that the international community already is intervening militarily against the rebels in Congo.
The United Nations Security Council in March approved an “intervention brigade” of 3,000 soldiers from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi. UN peacekeepers have been in Congo for years, but the new brigade is taking more of an offensive role than any previous mission. The soldiers are equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and night vision goggles, and they are authorized to “shoot first.” Since beginning their first major offensive in late August, the brigade has already forced the M23 rebel group to withdraw from Goma, a major city, and return to negotiations.
A Dose of Both Responses
The two biggest civil wars in the world today are both causing untold human misery. One, in Syria, is getting most of the world’s attention. This is partly because there is no international consensus behind a military intervention and because the idea of a unilateral American bombing mission is very controversial.
Meanwhile, the other civil war, the one in Congo, lately has been receiving a coordinated international military response. But few people are fretting about the United Nations’ intervention in Congo. Indeed, most people don’t realize that the United Nations has intervened there, or even that a civil war in Congo is happening at all.
Decisions about how the international community should respond to brutal civil wars—and whether force should be part of the equation—will probably always be muddy and difficult. But it’s hard not to notice that the civil wars in Syria and Congo could each benefit from a dose of the response given to the other. The civil war in Syria could use a more coordinated international strategy, as in Congo. And the civil war in Congo deserves a lot more urgency and a greater share of the international limelight.