The case against intervention in Syria

In the second of our two-part series, Lee Jenkins puts forward the case against intervention in Syria. Let the authors know which side you agree with in the comments sections below the respective arguments

by Lee Jenkins on 21 February 2013 10:55

Of all the conflicts to have been spawned by the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war is by some margin the most violent and destructive. As is often the case, figures vary massively, but sixty thousand dead doesn’t seem too far off the mark.

Images of shattered suburbs and children in blood spattered clothing have become so familiar to us now that they have started to lose some of their impact. That alone is cause for despair. And the response by many in the Western world has been to ask what can be done to stop the violence. One such option that has never truly been put to bed is for a military intervention, up to and including boots on the ground.

This would be a mistake, both militarily and geopolitically.

Advocates of intervention point to Libya and Mali as case studies of how a short, sharp burst of Western military power can shatter all in its path, allowing friendly local allies to sweep in and fill the void. But Syria is not Libya, and it certainly isn’t Mali.

Whereas Colonel Gadaffi’s forces were strung out on a thin and exposed coast line, the forces of President Assad are either fortified in strategic mountains and valleys, or worse, are engaged in street fighting in the major population centres. In both Mali and Libya, Western forces faced rag-tag militias with no air cover, established logistics, communications or professional officer corps, four things with Assad has ensured his forces enjoy.

Syria’s armed forces, though clearly no match for the combined might of the West, are sufficiently well equipped and trained to require weeks of bombardment, with all the inevitable civilian casualties that would entail.

We would then have to decide whether to deploy ground forces, or simply let opposition groups advance freely after an air campaign. Both options are fraught with problems.

For a start, who would provide the troops? To secure a country the size of Syria would require in excess of one hundred thousand troops. The US would wince at pouring troops and treasure into yet another hostile Muslim country. Europeans would barley be able to muster twenty thousand, and even then only for a very limited time. For historic reasons Turkish troops could not take part in any great numbers. And the Arab League simply doesn’t have those kinds of numbers to throw around. The UN is a complete non-starter as Russia and (probably) China would veto any resolution.

Even if the numbers could be summoned, Western-led troops would almost certainly be violently opposed by the remnant of Assad’s forces and by anti-Western militias. Again, although the Western forces would be able to defeat them, they would suffer casualties and cause civilians deaths in the process. The presence of foreign troops would also skewer and warp the conflict, with moderates being labelled as puppets of neo-colonial powers.

But allowing opposition groups to roll over the charred remains of the Assad war machine would be to unleash the gates of sectarian Hell. Syria is an incredibly diverse country, with Arab, Druze and Kurdish ethnic identities overlapping with Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Christian religious identities, which then feed into a regional patchwork of rural vs urban, coast vs hinterland, and north vs south.

The sudden collapse of central authority, in a country awash with weapons would create the equivalent of an Arab Yugoslavia…on speed. No single group of rebels could ever hope to hold more than a small patch of territory. Dozens of quasi-fiefdoms would establish themselves, with minorities in each area being purged, further fuelling sectarian hatred and making reconciliation ever harder. And as inevitably happens, the most extremist elements would silence the moderates through fear or force. We’d be faced with the very real possibility of an embryonic new Afghanistan, on the Mediterranean, bordering Israel, Turkey and Iraq.

Then there are the wider implications of intervention.

The first is one of hypocrisy. Why, the question would be asked, are we intervening to stop a government crack-down in Syria, yet engaging in a conspiracy of silence while a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain is systemically crushed by both Bahraini and Saudi forces? The answer of course is that the Gulf States are on ‘our’ side, whereas Syria is not. The moral argument for intervention has fallen at the first hurdle.

The second problem would be the reactions of regional powers, such as Iran and Russia. Both have vested interests in Syria, with or without Assad, and both have yet to receive guarantees that those interests would be protected. Consequentially, both Moscow and Tehran are fuelling the conflict, hoping to keep their man power.

Our childish, one-dimensional narrative of Assad the Monster has tied our hands, diplomatically. It’s resulted in an inability to reach out to the regime and his backers and thereby establish at least a framework for a negotiated peace.

Thirdly, as mentioned before, Western intervention would warp Syria’s transition from mafia state to whatever comes next. Like the US in 1917, we’d be seen as turning up after the hard work has been done, claiming the credit for winning, and expecting our views to be given prominence at whatever passed for a settlement.

There are no good outcomes for Syria, but some are worse than others. My preferred option is for a palace coup. Like it or not, the only thing that’ll hold Syria together is the apparatus of the current regime, minus its most sadistic elements.

A minister or senior military figure, if assured of the protection and support of the Great Powers, could arrest or kill Assad’s inner circle, then order a unilateral cease-fire, opening the door for talks with the leading rebel groups. There are signs that Assad already fears this; the family resides not in the Presidential Palace, but on a warship off the coast, such is his fear of his own government.

It’s not perfect, but it’s better than an emotionally-driven, clumsy, expensive, bloody and open-ended intervention.

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