Friday Focus: To Intervene in Syria or Not to Intervene?

Source: Syria Needs Analysis Project, accessed on BBC News.
Source: Syria Needs Analysis Project, accessed on BBC News.

For a long time I have been wondering when someone will finally intervene in Syria’s civil war.

I thought it might happen when the first Western journalists started sending out images from inside Syria of the absolutely appalling attacks on civilians happening there.  But it didn’t.

Then I thought it might happen when Syrian troops fired on targets inside Turkey, provoking NATO to call an emergency meeting and move Patriot Missiles to the Turkey-Syria Border.  But still it didn’t.

Then I thought it would for sure happen when Obama’s red-line of chemical weapons use was crossed, especially after Israel launched air-strikes inside Syria targeting the movements of such weapons.  But yet again, seemingly, no one is willing to step in.

Why is the West, and the United States in particular, so reluctant to take action in Syria?

There are, as best I can tell, four reasons for such a reluctance.

The first is simple war-weariness.  After more than a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constant threat of war with Iran and North Korea, watching Israel fight a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and being dragged into intervention in Libya by France and the UK, the United States at least is reluctant to commit its resources to yet another middle-eastern conflict.

The second reason for reluctance is political.  The West propped up many of the dictatorships that have been toppled by the Arab Spring.  While that isn’t necessarily true of the Assad dictatorship in Syria, it was true of Mubarak in Egypt.  The reality is that the West’s history in the region isn’t great, and often when revolutions like this one happen they result in a more staunchly anti-Western regime being installed in power.  Such was certainly the case after the Iranian revolution in the late 1970’s.  Similarly, there is intense fear among security hawks, especially in the American Republican party, that the new Egyptian government will take a strongly anti-American stance.  That revolution in particular has played badly for President Obama, who has been characterized by Republicans as having left a former ally out to dry, allowing radical, anti-American forces to take power.  Similarly, intervention in Libya has backfired on President Obama following the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi.  So, perhaps understandably, there is a political reluctance on the part of White House to intervene in Syria and run the risk of having the same kind of political backlash (especially after the announcement that the rebels may be teaming up with Al-Qaeda to fight Assad).  And, as is often the case in Western foreign policy, if the White House isn’t at least nodding its consent most other Western powers are reluctant to move at all.

The third reason for hesitancy to intervene in Syria is fear of a regional war.  Abbas’s Syria is the last real ally in the region for Iran and its militant partners in Lebanon, Hezbollah.  Intervening in Syria could easily escalate into a conflict with Iran or into a scenario in which Hezbollah launches retaliatory strikes against Israel, resulting in a renewal of their  2006 conflict.  Either possibility would likely drag the US and its Western allies into more than the enforcement of a no-fly zone or the provision of airborne support for the rebels in Syria; it could easily require the deployment of ground assets to counter an Iranian assault or the expansion of missions to include air-strikes against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.  Both of these possibilities are expensive and have the potential to extend a relatively short-term mission supporting the rebels in Syria into a long-term, multi-year commitment of troops to the region.  This not only plays into the West’s already mentioned war-weariness, it also carries huge geo-political consequences that have to be carefully considered, especially because in the worst case scenario such consequences could include escalation beyond a regional conflict, bringing us to reason four:

The fourth reason for hesitation is fear of a potential global conflict.  Both Russian and China have adamantly opposed intervention at the UN (largely for fear of bolstering the legitimacy and boldness of dissidents within their own countries).  Russia has gone so far, now, as to send weapons to the Assad regime to help protect them against Israeli (and potentially American, British, or French) air strikes.  While neither Russia nor China seems likely to go so far as to intervene militarily on behalf of the Assad regime right now, if the conflict were to escalate into a broader regional war involving Iran and Hezbollah there is the possibility that one or both might act to protect their interests in the region.  Such an escalation could result in a global conflict (whether “hot” or “cold”) with even larger military and geo-political ramifications.

While all of these reasons are legitimate ones for hesitation and reluctance to engage in military intervention in Syria, I’m afraid the consequences of not acting may not be much better.

Already the humanitarian toll of the war is huge.  The UN estimates that about 70,000 people have died since 2011, at least 4 million have been displaced and at least 1.6 million have fled the country as refugees.  The UN estimates that before the year is over 10 million people (over half the countries population) will require humanitarian assistance.  As the war shows no signs of letting up anytime soon, non-intervention will only result in those numbers rising increasingly higher.

Similarly, there is now very strong evidence from many of the world’s intelligence agencies that Syrian troops have indeed used chemical weapons against the rebels, albeit on a small scale.  If allowed to do this without strong military consequences, we can expect the scale (or at least the frequency) with which such weapons are used to steadily increase, compounding even further the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Alongside these humanitarian concerns is a hard geo-political reality: this war is already a regional conflict.  As troops from Hezbollah continue to enter Syria from Lebanon, fighting for the Assad regime, and fighters from around the region (and world) continue to pour in supporting the rebels, the investment of other nations in the outcome of this conflict is steadily increasing.  As battles and skirmishes continue to spill over Syria’s borders into Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel neighboring countries will be pushed harder and harder on the question of military engagement on the Syrian side of the border.  As weapons continue to arrive from Iran and Russian and as Israel continues to counter the movement of weapons out of Syria to Hezbollah’s strongholds in Lebanon the geo-political ramifications of this conflict for the entire region will continue to become more and more pronounced.  There is, in my estimation, no escaping this war becoming a regional one.  The question, then, is whether the United States and its Western allies will intervene before or after it has escalated into a full-blown regional war?

The argument for intervening before we reach that point is that quick, resolute, effective action from Western military forces (especially in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces) might discourage other nations like Iran from getting involved.  If the Western mission is already largely completed (or at least well underway) before Iran is able to fully mobilize their own forces, they are less likely to step into the fray for fear of risking a one-on-one conflict with the US on their own soil.  On the other hand, if the West waits until other regional powers are already entrenched in the conflict, we will effectively be entering late into an already existing regional war.  The decision by the US to engage at that point could easily be interpreted as an attempt to control the balance of power in the region and runs the risk of provoking other world powers, such as Russia, who might see such action as a threat to their own interests in the region.  Waiting to intervene until a regional war is well underway is the most likely scenario to result in a global conflict.  Moving to intervene now in the name of humanitarian assistance before such a regional war is underway is, from a global perspective, the least geo-politically risky path to take.

The question, of course, is whether or not there is the political will in Washington to launch such an intervention.  Hesitancy still seems to be the order of the day and it is unclear how long that hesitancy will last.


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