The Wisdom of Foreign Intervention

From the TelegraphIt appears that the UN-brokered ceasefire in Syria has failed. Just last week there were two bombings in Damascus suburbs and Syrian forces again shelled Homs (something expressly forbidden under the ceasefire agreement). With the situation in the country remaining violent and unstable, France and now Turkey have broached the subject of armed foreign intervention in Syria, specifically by NATO forces.

The argument for intervention, as it goes, is generally based on the avoidance (or rather prevention) of war crimes on the part of the Syrian government. Writers have drawn parallels to Srebrenica and Rwanda and wondered why the prevention of war crimes merited intervention in Libya but not in Syria.

This rationale underlies the UN action. Expressly designed to bring a peaceful solution to the conflict, the ceasefire and UN monitors are in place to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis and prevent any gross acts of violence.

This is certainly a worthwhile goal, and I don’t fault the UN for taking action. But it begs a particular question: As the situation in Syria has developed, it has become eminently clear that the conflict will only be resolved through force. Though this doesn’t necessarily entail violence—I’m thinking specifically of a bloodless coup as a possibility—it is apparent at this point that Assad will not voluntarily step down from power nor will opposition forces be convinced to accept the regime. The conflict seems to have progressed too far for peaceful resolution. Therefore, the UN ceasefire, even if it did put a stop to the violence (which it hasn’t), would ultimately do little more than prolong the conflict while giving the regime political cover by including it in the peace process (a notion that is anathema to the opposition and has drawn significant criticism). So is this an effective intervention?

I don’t have an answer. It’s difficult to argue that preventing war crimes isn’t a good thing (though it is important to remember that the Srebrenica massacre occurred in a UN-patrolled safe haven). But merely turning down the intensity of a low-intensity civil war just extends the instability and puts off any sort of decisive resolution to the conflict.

Hence the calls for military intervention. But military intervention is hardly an obvious solution. Any foreign military activity would have to involve more than air strikes. Given the deeply divided nature of the Syrian population, there is no overwhelming public mood against the regime as there was in Libya, and no clearly demarcated zones of rebel control. Syria is also far more densely populated than Libya. To be effective at either stopping government attacks or going as far as toppling the regime, significant military assistance for the opposition—up to and including troops—would be necessary. And there’s no guarantee of success for this degree of intervention, much less the international political will.

But even if NATO were to intervene and successfully remove Assad from power, any new government would have serious legitimacy problems. Given the long history of Western powers installing and propping up rulers in the region, Syrians who did not actively support the opposition could easily point to the new government as beholden to NATO interests. This government might find it difficult to rule, leading to more instability and more violence in the country.

This question of legitimacy is an issue for all instances of foreign intervention. (We certainly don’t know how the situation in Libya will play out or what government will emerge.) It gets to the heart of the question underlying all interventions: will intervening in order to stop violence now not result in more violence later? For Syria, this question is political; would enough Syrians accept Assad’s overthrow in favor of a new government? (Nobody knows.) There are certainly other issues—Would NATO commit to operations? How would Russia and China react? What role would the UN play?—but any deliberation of military intervention, no matter how well-intentioned, must consider the potential long-term ramifications for Syrians.

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Filed under Middle East, politics

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