Has the time come for military intervention in Syria? Despite efforts in many capitals to dodge the question, it is moving to the center of the debate over the Syrian tragedy. British Foreign Secretary William Hague says “no option” has been ruled out, code for readiness to consider military intervention. Senior American and French officials have expressed similar views, albeit with varying degrees of ambiguity.
In a sense, the question may well be redundant because military intervention is already taking place in a variety of ways. Russia and Iran continue to supply Bashar Al-Assad’s forces with arms and military advice, while elements of Lebanese Hezbollah may also be involved in fighting anti-Assad units. At the other end of the spectrum, Turkey and several Arab states have been helping rebel groups secure arms and funds since the start of the conflict. The presence of non-Syrian fighters on the side of the rebels may also be regarded as foreign military intervention, albeit an informal one.
However, the real debate is about the wisdom or folly of a ‘game-changing’ intervention. Such a course of action must have the magnitude to tip the balance in favor of the rebels and accelerate Assad’s downfall.
Those opposed to intervention represent a spectrum of opinions. Some are pacifists who oppose all wars. Others are political orphans of the Cold War who back Assad because they see him as part of a burgeoning anti-West bloc that includes Russia and Iran. The majority of those who oppose intervention, however, present a number of political and practical objections that must be considered on their merits.
The first objection is that there is no clear strategy for intervention. Do we want foreign armies to destroy Assad’s war machine and march on Damascus? The answer must be no. The intervention needed would be aimed at two precise objectives. The first is to enforce the arms embargo already approved by over a hundred nations. This requires a naval blockade plus aerial and ground surveillance of possible smuggling routes through Iraq and Lebanon. The second objective would be to set up safe havens, and to protect them against Assad’s air force and mechanized ground units. Three such safe havens already exist in embryonic form, just inside the borders from Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Last week, the United Nations managed to ferry aid to one of those for the first time, circumventing Assad’s regime.
The second objection is that an embargo imposed by Western powers, especially through naval blockade, could attract stiff opposition from Russia and Iran, triggering the risk of a broader conflict. That is highly unlikely. Iran lacks the military muscle to make an impression in the Mediterranean, although it might attempt to persuade Lebanese Hezbollah to launch reprisal terrorist operations. Though an opportunist power, Russia pursues a pragmatic, realist foreign policy. Even when it was the Soviet Union, Russia knew how far to push a confrontation, as illustrated during the Cuban crisis of 1962. In any case, Russia lacks the naval power to challenge a blockade imposed by NATO in the Mediterranean. Russia will back Assad as long as the price it has to pay is not higher than any possible future rewards.
The third objection is that there is no legal basis for intervention because Russia’s veto blocks the United Nations’ Security Council. Lack of explicit UN approval, however, does not make an intervention illegal. In fact, since the end of the Second World War, we have witnessed scores of wars that took place without a UN imprimatur. In fact, UN-approved wars were the exception, notably in Korea in 1951 and Iraq in 1991. Over decades, the duty to intervene—especially to stop or prevent genocide—has been woven into the international judicial culture. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime and stop genocide. A few months later, the Tanzanian army moved into Uganda to evict Idi Amin and stop the massacres he had started. In 1983, the United States, leading a coalition of Caribbean states, invaded Grenada to liberate hundreds of hostages and change the regime in place. In none of those cases was there UN authorization. The same principle was used to justify intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and, later, Kosovo: to stop genocide. In both cases, the UN was paralyzed by the threat of a Russian veto.
Addressing the UN General Assembly in 1999, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered a reflection on the genocide in Rwanda: “If, in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of states had been prepared to act in defense of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?”
Annan insisted that the world cannot stand aside when gross and systematic violations of human rights are taking place, and challenged the international community to adopt the notion of humanitarian intervention as legitimate and universal principle.
The fourth objection is that Syria’s geography makes intervention much more difficult than was the case in Libya. Actually, the opposite might be true. Libya is the world’s seventeenth-largest country, while Syria is eighty-ninth. Blockading Libya would mean sealing off 1,770 kilometers of coastline. The comparable number for Syria is 193 kilometers. Libya’s land borders are almost twice as long as those of Syria, while four out of Syria’s five neighbors have little or no reason to help Assad hang on to power.
The fifth objection is that, being costly, military intervention would be hard to sell to Western nations grappling with growing national debts and economic decline. It is true: war is expensive. However, allowing Syria to become an ungoverned land, and thus a haven for terror and crime on the Mediterranean, could prove far costlier in the long run. Worse still, the Syrian civil war could morph into the prelude for a larger regional war, as was the case in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939. Western public opinion may not be favorable to military intervention at present; however, this is because the debate has not taken place and the public has not been informed of arguments for and against. A good debate could address that lacuna and mobilize public support for humanitarian intervention.
The sixth objection is that, unlike Libya, which was a homogenous society, Syria is a mosaic of religious communities and ethnic groups. Thus, military intervention would not necessarily produce a harmonious transition. The fact, however, is that Libya is also a diverse country. Ethnic Arabs, Berbers and black Africans constitute different communities brought together under Italian and British colonial rule and, later, the dictatorship imposed by Colonel Gaddafi. Eastern and western Libya have been separate and distinct regions since Roman times. Even when it comes to religion, Libya is home to scores of different brands of Sufism and versions of Islam mixed with tribal folk culture. To be sure, Syria offers a greater degree of diversity, although at least seventy percent of the population are Sunni Muslim Arabs. Diversity, however, does not disqualify a nation from seeking freedom.
The seventh objection is that we do not know what would happen once the despot is booted out. There are no democrats in Syria, and foreign intervention could produce either chaos or another dictatorship. While pessimism is prudent in most cases in Middle Eastern politics, it is wrong to let the massacre continue for fear that something worse may follow. There are no democrats in Syria because there has never been democracy there. It is the chicken-and-egg conundrum.
The eighth objection is that democracy could not be imposed by force. This is true. However, force could be used to remove impediments to democracy, as was the case in Germany and Japan in the 1940s. In any case, the urgent aim of intervention now is to stop the massacre of Syrian people, not to install democracy there. The first step is to put the people of Syria in charge of their own destiny. What they do with their sovereignty and what kind of political system they wish to build would then be their own affair.
The ninth objection is that unlike Gaddafi, who had given up his weapons of mass destruction, Assad still has large quantities of chemical arms that he could use against the people of Syria or its neighbors as a ‘Samson option.’ The possibility of Assad using chemical weapons must not be taken lightly. After all, his fellow Ba’athist, Saddam Hussein, did use poison gas to kill thousands of Kurds in Halabcheh. However, one cannot allow Assad to blackmail his people and the entire humanity with his chemical arsenal. Concern about the possibility of a larger massacre does not justify indifference to the daily killings already taking place.
The tenth objection is that, faced with major military intervention by Western powers, Assad might well threaten Israel in conjunction with Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is controlled by Iran. Such an eventuality is more than remote. The Assad regime, father and son, has always used the Palestinian issue as a means of justifying its despotism while carefully avoiding a direct clash with Israel. In any case, one could not justify the current massacre of Syrian people as the price the world has to pay for Assad’s promise not to threaten Israel. The Palestine issue has been the last refuge of many scoundrels for more than six decades: in his time, Saddam Hussein used it to justify his own murderous regime.
The eleventh objection is that military intervention would dash all hopes of a political solution. So why not allow diplomacy to deploy its full arsenal of means and measures before we consider other options? This is good advice. War must always be the last resort. If the Gordian knot could be untied with fingers, why use the sword? However, diplomacy cannot become a fig leaf to hide inaction. Over the past two years, numerous diplomatic efforts have been made, including two missions led by Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, two diplomats of the highest standing. Thanks to inside knowledge, we can report that Brahimi has offered the fairest and the most realistic compromise formula. More recently, Moaz Al-Khatib, the nominal head of the Syrian opposition, has gone further by calling for direct negotiations with the regime, exposing himself to charges of treason. All of these attempts to implement a peaceful solution have hit the brick wall of Assad’s refusal. Military intervention could be triggered at the end of a fixed period of reflection granted to Assad.
The twelfth objection is inspired by Machiavellian calculations of power politics. It runs like this: why not let Iran and Russia bear the burden of prolonging Assad’s moribund regime for a while longer? Syria has already cost Iran over USD 10 billion, and that at a time that the Islamic Republic is facing economic meltdown. For Tehran, Syria has become an expensive embarrassment. Allow things to continue a bit longer and Syria may well pull down Iran with it. As for Russia, why not let Vladimir Putin to consolidate his image in the minds of the Arabs as a guarantor of delinquent despots? I called this argument ‘Machiavellian,’ but ‘diabolical’ might be more apt. Should the people of Syria be sacrificed so that Iran could be brought to its knees and Russia shut out of the Arab world as an enemy?
While we ponder the question, in Syria, people die.