Questions for a Military Intervention in Syria

Originally published on Developing Change

Aleppo and the Syrian refugee crisis is, deservedly, getting a great deal of attention at the moment. The photo of the three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach and the suffering of civilians caught between loyalists and rebels has served as a major catalyst of attention on Europe and the US’s failure to aid refugees, primarily Syrian but also from a number of other conflicts. However, this attention to Syrian refugees has also sparked a number of responses in a different vein, arguing that the focus on helping refugees is only addressing a symptom, while the focus should be instead on resolving the real cause, the Syrian Civil War. Those making these arguments have also used this surge of attention to revive calls for additional military intervention in Syria through the form of a no-fly zone. While this argument correctly asserts that the war itself produces far more human suffering than the inadequate aid to refugees, just because a problem is larger in scale it does not mean it is necessarily the one that we (by which I- and as far as I can tell, they too- mean the West) have the most power to solve.

In terms of refugees, the prospect of resettling Syria’s four million refugees does not seem insurmountable given that the population of the EU, US, and Canada is upwards of 850 million. Even without resettling all the refugees, the funding to support Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries has been abysmal, but the funds needed are extremely small in comparison to the massive size of government budgets. As far as military intervention, I am often frustrated by the ease with which the human rights community allows moral outrage to turn into support for military action without nearly enough diligence.

That is not to say that military options could never help, and we would be doing a disservice to suffering populations if we did not consider them. However, other nonmilitary options must be considered with the same seriousness and there must be the consideration that we could do more harm than good.  For Syria, I tend to think that when we are very unsure what the effects of a military intervention will be, even though the country is utterly destroyed at the moment, it will be better off if we don’t add more bombs and armed parties to the mix.  My perspective is motivated largely by the fact that I don’t know the answers to the conflict, but I’m not saying no one else does, and the most popular answer at the moment is a no-fly zone. I’m willing to be convinced though, so if your plan for a military intervention- which I’m assuming is a no-fly zone, but these questions apply to other military interventions as well- answers these questions, I think it’s worth trying.

  • How will the military intervention impact the political solution to the conflict? Are you planning on leaving the political situation to sort itself out and the intervention is just to lessen Assad’s ability to kill civilians? But won’t the no-fly zone also make the Assad regime militarily weaker, and therefore more likely to fall?

  • The three most powerful military actors in Syria are Assad, ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra. Are you prepared to have one of them take control of the country? Or are you trying to defeat them all? Assuming that is even possible, then who will lead? (“The people” is not an acceptable answer). If a tolerable party acquires control of the government, will they be able to survive, or will Syria collapse right back into war? Maybe you think the Somilianisation of Syria, where it is nearly stateless but has relatively low-intensity violence, is preferable to what we have now, but will other parties lessen fighting after the removal of Syria’s largest military actors?

  • Barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime are the biggest killer of Syrian civilians. But will a no-fly zone actually lead to reduced violence from the Assad regime against civilians? Will use of ground attacks increase, or might chemical weapon attacks launched from the ground increase? Also, might other rebel groups be emboldened by increased weakness in the Assad regime and launch aggressive offensives?

  • External interventions tend to increase the length of civil wars, and we’re currently seeing in the Middle East that the heavy involvement of foreign powers is leading to more violent conflicts. Why will additional Western intervention in Syria be an exception to this trend? And Iran, Russia, and China have all backed the Assad regime, including using UNSC vetoes in the case of the latter two. A no-fly zone has almost no chance of getting UNSC approval. Will these powers step up action in support of the Assad regime in response to Western intervention and further escalate the conflict?

  • Especially with the 2016 elections coming up, a military intervention in Syria would be a much debated American political issue. Even if there is a careful plan to ensure the success of a military intervention, with a strategy for addressing Syrian political institutions and including a withdrawal strategy, what happens if a new President decides he/she wants to change it? Or if in the middle of the intervention the public decides it is tired of a foreign war? And might a no-fly zone’s formal declaration of war against the Assad regime making it far easier for hawks to later implement poorly thought out aggressive military actions?

  • Of course, the most recent major US military intervention was to remove an oppressive dictator in Syria’s neighbour, Iraq. The last time the US implemented a no-fly zone was after an Arab Spring revolution had morphed into a civil war in Libya. Both countries are now disasters. Why will Syria be different?

Of course, no military intervention will solve all Syria’s problems, and the standard should be whether it will make the situation better for Syrians. If these questions are answered carefully and responsibly, and we can be reasonably sure it won’t make things worse, then a military intervention is the right choice. But although a military intervention may help assuage our guilt at the nearly unbelievable suffering taking place in Syria, if we get it wrong, Syrian civilians will be the ones paying the price.

Tim Hirschel-Burns

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect The Conflict archives