Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The issue of military intervention in Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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When the Lebanese civil war broke out in April 1975, regional and international public opinion was divided over how to put an end to it. Some believed that the Lebanese crisis was an internal and Arab issue, and so international military intervention was unacceptable. Others demanded direct military intervention, or at least the provision of military and logistical aid to the Lebanese army, under the pretext that the central government was incapable of confronting the Lebanese and Palestinian militias, or forcing them to accept a ceasefire, without the presence of an international alliance that was able to deter parties from violating agreements, and able to preserve security in a country fraught with historical grudges and sectarian feuds.

There were two sides leading the debate and directly influencing the options of late Lebanese President Suleiman Frangieh. On the one hand, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was warning and threatening Frangieh against the internationalization of the crisis, so that Lebanon would not fall under the US and French mandate. On the other hand, some US officials were trying to convince Frangieh of the necessity of resorting to the UN Security Council, or at least to confront the Palestinian militias with force, in return for America providing material and military support. Against his own will, Frangieh accepted Syria’s request to intervene in June 1976, and less than two months later, the Arab summit in Riyadh granted Syria the legitimacy to stay on Lebanese soil. Of course, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon continued for over three decades. The Lebanese state’s civil identity was destroyed and its sovereignty was violated, as it became a centre for terrorist organizations under the pretext of “resistance”.

In 2005, recalling the historic mistake of passing up the opportunity for international intervention, in order to preserve the sovereignty of the Lebanese state and prevent it from collapsing, Henry Kissinger urged the international powers to intervene in Lebanon to drive out the Syrian troops and disarm Hezbollah. He wrote: “Three times since 1958 – the United States that year, Syria in 1976 and Israel in 1981 – foreign intervention held the ring in Lebanon to prevent collapse into violence and to arbitrate among the Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze groups that constitute the Lebanese body politic…The test will be whether the United States and the international community are able to bring about an agreed political framework and whether they can mobilize an international presence to guarantee that the conflicting passions do not once again erupt.” (International Herald Tribune, 15th May, 2005).

Today, as we approach the beginning of 2012, Syria is facing the same scenario. Ten months of protests and the state of civil disobedience have divided the country along sectarian and regional lines, and pushed it closer to the brink of civil war. So far, over 5,000 people have been killed, with thousands more displaced or thrown into prison. Every day we hear news of further killings as more defections occur from the army and government positions, and as the dramatic collapse hits the economy and basic services. Amidst this state of crisis in Syria, and the al-Assad regime’s insistence upon spurning all regional and international initiatives, instead giving precedence to the logic of armed violence, the option of direct military intervention – or arming the revolutionaries – has been strongly mooted as the necessary means to preserving the unity of the Syrian state. Otherwise, it may descend into the pit of sectarian and regional warfare, thus transforming Syria into a failed state. It would then be another hot spot for regional destabilization, and a haven for terrorist groups.

Currently, there are two schools of thought dominating the debate about the Syrian crisis: The first one approves of direct military intervention or arming the revolutionaries in a manner similar to Libya, which would have never managed to remove the Gaddafi regime were it not for the assistance of NATO’s air force, as well as NATO’s logistic and intelligence support for the volunteer fighters. The other opinion warns against foreign military intervention and the internationalization of the crisis, under the pretext of safeguarding the Syrian revolution from descending into armed violence. There is also a fear that such a step would open the way for Western countries to re-mould Syria’s political and economic future, including its position on Israel.

Advocates of military intervention or arming the revolutionaries – whether on the Arab or international level – argue that the heavy human price currently being paid necessitates intervention for the protection of civilians. Hence, their argument justifying intervention is chiefly based on the need to protect human rights and remove the current authoritarian regime, as was the case with other countries like Tunisia and Egypt.

Those warning against internationalizing the crisis in a military fashion argue that intervention would be wrong for several reasons, including the existence of international objection (represented in the Russian or Chinese veto). There is also the anticipated interference of Iran, either directly or through its allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, in order to support the regime or spread chaos and terror in the event of the regime’s collapse. Those who adopt this opinion also warn that the human cost could be huge, along the lines of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, they contend that the results of military intervention cannot be guaranteed. The overthrow of the al-Assad regime might lead to the country fragmenting into armed sectarian cantons, each with no problem finding a financier or an arms supplier from neighbouring countries. Besides, the construction of a new democratic state, with an agreed-upon constitution and a new social contract preserving the rights of minorities, cannot be guaranteed.

This last point is very significant. A change of regime in Syria could lead to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is not greatly different to the Baathist party with regards to its history of bloodshed and coups, and its exploitation of the resistance card, just like the rest of the Islamic parties. The Muslim Brotherhood could rule with the same inflammatory behaviour by encouraging violence, backing armed religious militias, and justifying the hijacking of the state under the pretext of liberating the land and confronting Israel.

Of course the Arab countries hold differing views for and against the idea of intervention. Countries like Algeria and Yemen do not want a repetition of the Libyan scenario, as any forced change of governance in Syria might threaten their own regimes. Other countries would love to see the current Syrian regime collapse, for reasons pertaining to its alliance with Iran and its negative intervention in Lebanon and Gaza. Such countries believe that the weakening of the al-Assad regime, and its preoccupation with its own survival, is the least that should come of this. To be fair, I must point out that there are countries which truly believe in the necessity of military intervention for humanitarian reasons. This does not mean however that they don’t have strategic interests which might be served in accompaniment to their “idealistic” moral vision of the crisis.

In my opinion, direct military intervention at this stage is the only real and practical option if the international community and the Arab countries are serious about sparing the Syrian state a complete political meltdown, and a disintegration of the social fabric that binds the Syrian sects and ethnicities together. The last ten months have proved that the Syrian protesters are incapable of overthrowing the al-Assad regime alone. Arming the Syrian civilians would have negative consequences in the long run, because it would lead to the militarization of Syrian society, and the provision of the weapons necessary to prolong a civil war there. Of course I am not playing down the negative impact of direct military intervention, or the international and regional obstacles it would face. Yet it seems that Syria cannot take it anymore. Without a change of regime, it might be impossible to maintain the sovereignty of the Syrian state, and its stability as we know it.

Let us recall how Eisenhower’s military intervention in 1958 saved Lebanon from disintegration, and that the failure to intervene in 1975 led to the destruction of the country. The true guarantee that the Arab League and Syria’s neighbouring countries should provide is for a change of regime, through international military intervention if necessary. But first they should try and formulate a (secular) civil alternative from the internal and external opposition; something more representative of the entire spectrum of Syrian people than the current Syrian National Council (SNC). This alternative must be committed to effecting a democratic transformation under the auspices of international organizations, and prepared to offer assurances to the Alawite sect and the Christians, so that they are not discriminated against or politically and economically deprived. If the Syrian opposition cannot commit itself to granting an amnesty to the Baathist party members, and does not pledge to preserve the institutions of the state and honour its international commitments, then the chances of Syria being saved will be very slim.

Some might believe that justifying a military intervention in Syria here is selective compared to other examples. Indeed, this is true. However, my call for a military intervention here is not strictly for humanitarian reasons, despite their importance, but rather for strategic ones, so that this terror-sponsoring regime does gain strength again. In his book entitled “This is My Will” (1978), Kamal Jumblatt said: “Damascus played the role of the Arabist, the pan-Arabist, and also adopted the radical Palestinian position. All this contributed to making the Syrian political campaign ineffective in the long run. Unspecified and vague principles…are always bad.”