The Case Against Military Intervention in Syria

Should Western powers seek to intervene militarily in Syria to stop the bloodshed? Should they do so even if the UN fails to agree on a resolution? I think not.

The recent peace plan to solve the situation in Syria has received the backing of the UN Security Council. This undoubtedly puts additional pressure on president Bashar al-Assad, who had earlier relied on Russia and China to veto any UN resolutions deemed too critical of the Syrian regime. But what will happen when this latest initiative also fails?

Should Western powers seek to intervene militarily in Syria to stop the bloodshed? Should they do so even if the UN fails to agree on a resolution? I think not. Taking sides in internal conflicts is always tricky and would almost certainly be a recipe for disaster in the Syrian case.

In Libya the situation was markedly different. Not only was a UN resolution obtained, but crucially also support from the Arab League. However, because the objective of the NATO-led mission in Libya was quickly transformed from protecting civilians to carrying out regime change, much of the Arab support was lost. Since the UN resolution was hijacked in such a crude fashion in Libya, both Russia and China are much more reluctant to offer a carte blanche for military intervention in Syria out of fear that the same thing would happen there.

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is the regional power balance. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the driving force behind the Syrian opposition, just as they were instrumental in backing the Libyan opposition. This has been seen in the secret arming of Syrian opposition fighters and calls on Assad to step down. The Gulfi support for the Libyan and Syrian opposition must be seen in the light of the modern history of the Middle East, where traditionally Mu'ammar al-Gadaffi and Hafez al-Assad (Bashar's father who ruled Syria from 1970 to 2000) were the enemies of the absolute monarchies of the Gulf.

The attempts of Qatar and Saudi Arabia to get rid of Bashar al-Assad has very little to do with concerns over his authoritarian way of ruling and his ruthless suppression of the population. After all, since the start of the so-called Arab Spring in early 2011 they have been trying to stem the flow of the revolutionary forces in the Gulf, including launching a military intervention in Bahrain to quell protests there.

On the other hand, events over the past year have turned out to be quite advantageous to these two conservative Arab kingdoms. In Tunisia, the Islamist al-Nahda Party came out as the strongest political force in last year's elections which followed in the wake of the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's fall has paved the way for the Muslim Brothers and the Salafist al-Nur Party. In Libya, the former Jihadist Abdelhakim Belhadj wields extensive power as the leader of the Military Council of Tripoli. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood are becoming increasingly vociferous and confident, and in Turkey the moderately Islamist AKP has been running the country for the past decade and steering it towards a more 'Islamic' foreign policy.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, who are currently outlawed and working underground, are looking optimistically to the future. In a recent interview, their leader, Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa, said the only language Assad understands is that of force and that the people were determined to overthrow the regime.

While it is difficult to gauge exactly how big the Muslim Brotherhood's influence is in Syria, it is likely that it too would play a significant role in a future Syria should the current regime fall - just as its sister organisations do in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan and Palestine.

The current plight of civilians in Syria is undoubtedly a serious problem, but a military intervention to topple the regime is certainly not the best way to address it.

As was clear in the case of Libya, Western powers operating through NATO were willing to commit resources to an aerial bombardment campaign that was relatively risk free. They were, however, unwilling to send in ground troops (perhaps having learnt their lesson in Iraq and Afghanistan). The resulting mess in Libya is looking increasingly like Mogadishu of the early 1990s, where armed militias control their own areas and no-one is willing to submit to a national authority - and this in a country that was said to be homogenous and unified in its opposition to Gaddafi.

Imagine what might happen in a country divided between Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Palestinians, Sunnis, Ithna 'Ashari Shi'is, 'Alawis, Isma'ilis, Druzes, and Christians and where the opposition appears to be partial and fragmented.


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