Arguments against intervention in Syria are losing steam

After Israel’s reported air strike on Damascus, intervention is no longer a theoretical concept. The question now is whether international military action should move from containment to humanitarian intervention?

Last week, Larry Derfner made an argument against international intervention in Syria. This was before news broke of the recent attack (video above), and things are different now. Here are a few of my thoughts:

Israel has reportedly struck targets inside Syria twice in four days. This time, the targets were in the Damascus area and unlike the previous strike, the Syrian regime publicly blamed Israel for the latest attack. So intervention is Syria is no longer a theoretical option, but something that to a limited degree is already taking place (and not just as a response to occasional stray fire from Syrian territory, as Israel and Turkey have done in the past). We can expect such attacks to happen again.

The real question is whether the international community should move from a containment effort – i.e. ensuring that the war doesn’t spill into other countries or that WMDs and other advanced weapons systems are not moved – to offensive action against the regime. I think the answer is unclear, but recently I’ve been leaning towards ‘yes.’

Naturally, it’s not Israel that should lead or even take part in such an effort, for all the obvious reasons. Still, I think we should see greater Israeli involvement on the humanitarian side of the conflict. Unlike all the countries that border Syria, Israel has only accepted a handful of Syrian casualties, and no refugees. The problems that the entry of refugees pose to Lebanon and Jordan exceed the threat to Israel considerably, yet those countries allow hundreds of thousands of Syrians into their territory (Jordan doesn’t allow Palestinians, however). None of these countries are as rich and powerful as Israel. If Israel ever wants to be accepted in the Middle East, it should start acting like a Middle Eastern country and share the burden in times of suffering. It’s way more important than sending aid delegations to Haiti.

With regards to international military intervention, I do not think the main problem is the potential rise of radical groups when the regime eventually falls. With or without intervention, what happens next in Syria is anybody’s guess. It’s also not clear that holding back from intervening is the best way to secure the Syrian WMDs (unlike in Iraq, Syria’s weapons actually exist). Much could happen – the regime could sell them to third parties, scientists and officers might defect with them, and so on.

I am no expert, but from what I gather, handling chemical weapons on a large scale is a complicated business, so the most likely scenario remains that future use will be by the regime. Plus, if Israel continues to strike Syria on its own, the regime might be tempted to respond in some way or another (especially if it feels its back is against the wall) perhaps in a last-ditched effort to unite supporters in a holy war against Israel.

The best argument against intervention is the obvious ones: that foreign powers do little good when they enter such conflicts, and that the West should stop trying to shape the Middle East through military force. Along that line of thinking, another war would solidify the feeling by many that we are witnessing a new version of colonialism in the Gulf and parts of the Middle East, where most countries are governed either by autocratic pro-American regimes, or directly by a Western army.

But the Syrian case is unique. Because of the ethnic divisions in Syria, we are witnessing a regime that is conducting a war against its own citizens (I suggest reading this debate on Angry Arab – a site hostile to the opposition – for more). While atrocities are also being carried out by the opposition, the regime is committing them systematically. Things couldn’t get much worse, but the international debate has taken a sick twist: it’s no longer about whether the regime kills its citizens by the thousands, but how it does it. As long as Assad doesn’t gas his own people – and only shoots or bombs them – he seems to be safe.

It’s okay to be against humanitarian military interventions as a rule. However, if one believes — even theoretically — that there are situations in which the international community must intervene militarily, the Syrian case looks like it qualifies.

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Related:
The least terrible policy in Syria: Doing nothing
UNRWA: A quarter-million Palestinians displaced in Syrian civil war thus far