The Dilemma over Whether to Intervene in Syria

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Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.  His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website, from where this article is cross-posted.

Syria’s military continued its brutal assault on neighborhoods of Homs, a center of civil disobedience against the regime, on Thursday, killing over 100 persons, including children.

This deployment of military force against civilians who were protesting is a war crime, and part of a pattern that by now amounts to crimes against humanity.

The first thing that comes to mind at these horrific images is that something should be done.

But what? Sen. John McCain has called for arming the rebels, as has the The New Republic, which appears to be veering again toward neoconservatism.

My wise colleague Marc Lynch has raised important questions about the wisdom of this course.

I would argue an even stronger case against. Once you flood a country with small and medium arms, it destabilizes it for decades.

Ronald Reagan spread weapons all around northern Pakistan, and in my view began the destabilization of that country, which now has an endemic problem with armed tribes, militias and gangs. I saw the same thing happen in Lebanon shortly before, during the civil war that threw that country into long term fragility. More recently, we saw a civil war in Algeria (1991-2000) that left 150,000 people dead, which is really no different than what has been going on in Syria except that it was on a much larger scale and the West at that time decided to support the secular generals against the rebelling Muslim fundamentalists. The arming of Iraq post-Saddam has left it a horribly violent society for the foreseeable future (a plethora of U.S. arms given to the new Iraqi military and police were often sold off to guerrillas). And while the war would have been longer in Libya if Qatar and France had not secretly armed the rebels, it likely would have had a similar outcome (what was really important was NATO attrition of Libyan armor). And in that case the problem the country now faces, of militia rule and fragmentation, would have been much less severe.

If people don’t think a flood of arms into the hands of Syrian fighters will spill over onto Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel/ Palestine, they are just fooling themselves. The Palestinians in the region have largely given up or been made to give up arms, in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But if small and medium arms become widespread and inexpensive, it will take us back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when Palestinian guerrillas shook Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. The Palestinians themselves always suffered from a resort to arms, and are best served by a peaceful movement of protest, and a remilitarization of their struggle would produce further tragic setbacks.

Turkey, it should be noted, is against letting arms in to either side. They do not want another ‘dirty war’ in their heavily Kurdish southeast, as happened in the 1980s-1990s.

Ultimately, the problem of legitimate action here lies in the UN Security Council. My critics have sometimes suggested that I support Democratic but not Republican Party wars, but they, like most Americans, just don’t understand the UN Charter. First of all, my default position is to oppose war under most circumstances, what I can “the option for peace.” War should not be a war of choice, but should be a very last resort. But large-scale armed aggression by one country on another, or genocide, need to be opposed by arms where that is practical. As for legitimate use of force, I am against wars that do not stem from either self-defense or from a UN Security Council resolution. I wouldn’t necessarily support any old war the UNSC authorized, but its authorization is a sine qua non. Thus, I opposed the Bush invasion of Iraq once it became clear that there would be no UN authorization; unfortunately that did not become clear until late in the day. I supported a no-fly zone over Libya and an air intervention against armor used on civilians, but was critical of NATO bombing of Tripoli; i.e. I supported UNSC Resolution 1973.

I attended a meeting on Syria late last November in Europe of Europeans and Syrians attempting to think through what might be accomplished, and the lack of UN authorization cast a shadow over the conference. A seasoned European diplomat who had a long posting in Syria attended, and I pressed him on whether strong measures were possible. I fear my passion for the victims was more in evidence than my understanding of international law.

The first thing the diplomat underlined is that there is no United Nations Security Council authorization for the use of force, so no European country will use force. It was a refreshing reminder that in Europe the UN Charter and international law is still taken seriously. In the U.S., mention of international law is usually greeted with gales of derision.

Could Syrian ships, I asked the diplomat, be boarded to prevent arms shipments to the regime?

No. That would be piracy if they were on the high seas, he replied

But by way of analogy, I asked, can’t North Korean ships be boarded at will by the ships of the international community?

He replied that he’d been involved in the North Korea resolution. A) It is more complicated than that and B) those measures depend on a UN Security Council resolution; no such resolution has been passed with regard to Syria.

What if the Syrian ships were within 12 miles from the shore of a European country?

Then they could be boarded, but they are not so stupid as to ply those waters. Few military goods go to Syria in Syrian-flagged ships, anyway.

Undeterred, I asked about indicting Bashar al-Assad at the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

The diplomat reminded me that the court can only take up a matter if it concerns a signatory to the ICC.

But, I say, Libya was not a signatory.

In that case, the diplomat wearily reminded me, the UN Security Council referred the Qaddafis to the ICC, which is the only way a case concerning a non-signatory can be sent to the court. But Russia and China are preventing such a referral in the case of Bashar al-Assad.

I gradually realized that if any semblance of the international rule of law were to be maintained, the international community could do nothing kinetic as long as Russia and China were running interference for the Ba'athist regime in Syria. The logjam here is the Security Council, and its archaic veto privileges for the five permanent members—the victors of WW II who still make policy for the whole world.

I am all for finding a way to get humanitarian aid to the dissident towns in Syria, but that step alone will not stop the regime’s violence against its people. Further sanctions on Ba'athist officials would be all to the good, but the planned European Union boycott of Syrian phosphate and other exports will likely hurt the Syrian people more than the regime; boycotts that make people poor actually strengthen the regime, as we saw in Iraq in the 1990s.

I don’t think the notion of establishing protected zones for Syrian dissidents inside Syria is legal or practical. It would require that someone send troops into a sovereign country to establish the perimeter and then protect residents from the Syrian army. As the diplomat reminded me, there is no UNSC authorization of the use of force. Any such zones would clearly immediately become war zones. Regional governments that backed these zones, whether Turkey or Jordan, would almost certainly themselves be attacked by the Syrian army (especially tiny Jordan).

If you want practical action or even military intervention in Syria beyond financial and economic sanctions, there are only two ways to get it legitimately. That would be to find a way to pressure Russia and China to stop protecting Bashar al-Assad. The other possibility would be to find a way to abolish the one-country veto on the UNSC.

I remember my anger and despair, as a teenager, at the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks in 1968. I feel the same way about Syria today. But in both cases, great power sphere-of-influence politics made it impossible to do anything practical about it. The hope lies only in the longer term. Prague got its spring when the Soviet Union got a reformist premier, who was influenced by decades of Soviet dissident thinking and writing. Syrian dissidents will just have to keep up a non-violent struggle for the truth that might go on for a while. If they can prevail non-violently, their revolution would immediately be more well-grounded and likely to succeed.

Related Links

Interview with Juan Cole on Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia (Video)

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