This question, which is hotly debated in the media, in Parliaments, and in security cabinet meetings, summarises a variety of separate, yet interdependent questions that diplomats, military leaders and decision-makers must answer before maybe intervening in Syria:
- Do we have to intervene because the Syrian regime committed war crimes?
- Can we intervene under international law and in the current diplomatic context?
- Do we have the power to intervene effectively? Are we well-prepared enough?
- Do we want to intervene or are we tired of war in remote regions?
- If we intervene, how do we do it?
- We have a designated “enemy” (the Assad regime), but do we have friends/allies in Syria?
- What are the consequences of the intervention? And does our intervention make things better or worse, both in the short and in the long run?
I will try to provide an answer to them at the best of my knowledge. Before that, you will have noticed that I am talking about EU Member States, not the EU itself. I made this choice because the European diplomacy has been inaudible on the Syrian matter and there is not “European army” that could participate in military action against the Assad regime. Europeans are not unanimous on the opportunity of an intervention; moreover, in some cases, although the government supports action against the Syrian regime, the Parliament may decide differently (see the British case).
1) Do we have to intervene because the Syrian regime committed war crimes?
Yes, I believe we have to. Western leaders, in particular US President Barack Obama, have declared that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line”. So, an intervention is clearly a matter of credibility for Western leaders. Moreover, the international system was built to ensure that war crimes – such as the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against its own population – would be prevented and, if prevention did not work, punished. So, if international norms are to keep their role, they must be forcefully applied to impose sanctions on the users of chemical weapons.
2) Can we intervene under international law and in the current diplomatic context?
A military intervention requires a mandate from the UN Security Council. Now, it is clear that a country such as Russia has no intention of giving the green light to such operation. Therefore, save an unexpected turn of events, a potential intervention would be outside the international legal framework.
However, the British government claimed that an intervention could be legal even without a UN resolution (a basis could be the doctrine of the duty to intervene in case of severe humanitarian crisis). Moreover, there is a precedent: the NATO intervention in Kosovo, in 1999, which also took place without a mandate of the UN and did not please Russia.
I believe that Russia will not react militarily to a “Western” intervention in Syria; it will use other measures of retaliation, but I do not think that Russia has the power to fight a Western coalition. Moreover, a Russian official participation in the war (on Assad’s side, of course, i.e., directly against an American-led coalition) would represent a dramatic escalation that no party wants. As for Iran, it is too weak as well. In my eyes, the most likely damage that Russia and Iran can create would be to channel more arms to support the Assad’s army.
3) Do we have the power to intervene effectively? Are we well-prepared enough?
I believe it mainly depends on the type of intervention (see question 5). The idea of intervening has truly emerged only in the recent days, so the level of preparation depends upon whether the military command – in particular, the American one – had already secretly prepared plans for an intervention or not.
4) Do we want to intervene or are we tired of war in remote regions?
Considering the public opinion about the war in Iraq, and even about the war in Afghanistan in some European countries, it is legitimate that leaders fear the reaction of their citizens if they get involved in yet another conflict. Moreover, the antecedents of intervention are mixed: Libya does not anymore make the headlines in Western media, but this does not mean that problems disappeared and that the country is stabilised. So, political leaders like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel are quite reluctant to intervene. The rejection of the government’s motion by the British Parliament goes in the same direction. But, on the other hand, our values, as well as former announcements (in particular, Barack Obama declaring that the use of chemical weapons would change the situation), require us to intervene.
5) If we intervene, how do we do it?
This is one of the biggest issues. There are several options: ranked from the least to the most interventionist, we have: selective bombing using missiles shot from the sea, selective bombing using aerial intervention, the creation of a no fly-zone, and an intervention on the ground. I think the latter can clearly be excluded, because it would represent too much involvement, while the Western powers want a strong, but limited answer to the use of chemical weapons. Moreover, the experience of Iraq also excludes such developed action. The no-fly zone is something that would help a lot the rebels, but it is unsure that the USA and their allies will go so far, knowing that it would be more difficult in Syria than it has been in Libya. A friend of mine, who is more specialised than me in security and defence matters, believes that the first option (missiles shot from the sea) is the most likely, but an effective intervention may require using the second option as well. Of course, the type of intervention will also depend from the goals of such intervention.
6) We have a designated “enemy” (the Assad regime), but do we have friends/allies in Syria?
This is another big question: who exactly are we siding with? The problem is that the rebels are quite divided and the main (or, even, only) element uniting them is the wish to get rid of the Assad regime. Moreover, there are reports that extremists / radical Islamists begin dominating the rebellion. But establishing an Islamic State is surely not the goal of the Western allies. Therefore, we need to define more clearly who we want to support in the fight; otherwise, toppling the Assad regime will be like overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq: a change in the relative power of the different parties to a civil war that we do not end. Of course, the Western leaders have declared that they do not aim at a regime change, but it is likely that any strike against Assad will weaken his side and correlatively favour the rebels. So, we urgently have to look for “friends” on the ground.
7) What are the consequences of the intervention? And does our intervention make things better or worse, both in the short and in the long run?
This question must really be answered by military strategists and decision-makers before starting the intervention. Are we intervening to re-balance the conflict? Are we trying to topple the Assad regime directly or indirectly? Can we avoid a bloody on-going civil war? How will we protect the minorities and the losers of the war after its end? How will we bring peace back to Syria? What are the consequences of an intervention for the rest of the region?
In my position of humble blogger, I cannot properly answer these questions. But I hope that those in charge of answering them will do so. I will simply indicate that claiming that an intervention would threaten the stability of the region is ridiculous, since the region is already unstable, refugees are already massively arriving in neighbour countries, and Syria is already in a situation of civil war. Another predictable consequence is that strikes against the Assad regime would bring it ever closer to Russia and Iran, making the West de facto closer to the rebels (though some of these are hostile to our values and principles and could become enemies after the end of the civil war). If the Assad regime were to fall, we would need to ensure the protection of minorities and of the “losers” of the civil war.
To sum up, a military strike will not solve the problems of Syria; it can be a beginning, but there must be a clear political and diplomatic strategy as well, which would aim at ending the war, building a long-lasting peace, and building and strengthening institutions. The wider the international support to this cause, the most likely it will succeed.
NB: This article is built upon the answer I provided in a contributors’ debate organised on “thedailyjournalist.com”. Several other writers gave answers, many of them very interesting. They can be consulted here.