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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.

Join the discussion:

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

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  • COMMENTS

    1. William Burns

      I reckon the chance of Israel accepting thousands of Arab refugees, from Syria or anywhere else, as roughly equivalent to those of Ismail Haniyeh converting to Judaism.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Why on earth, after reading of all the horrors of Israeli rule and occupation here at 972, would Arab refugees WANT to live under Israeli control, when they can live under enlightened Arabic/Islamic rule in Arab countries like Syria?

        Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      The argument that is taking place right now is silly. Iran and Hezbollah are openly intervening in the conflict in Syria. The Saudis, Qataris and Turks are intervening only slightly less openly. The question isn’t whether the problems of Syria should be left to the Syrians. That cat is out of the bag. The question is whether the Western states should participate in the intervention. Does the West (read America) has a strategic interest in intervening? Given the ongoing strategic standoff with Iran the answer is yes. In this case the humanitarian reasons for intervention happen to coincide with the strategic ones.

      So, what is left? People like Derfner who are afraid of breathing for fear of making things worse.

      For the life of me I can’t understand why there is such a double standard where Iranian and Turkish intervention in Syrian domestic affairs is considered acceptable, but Western intervention is like a different species. And don’t start with the whole colonial historical baggage. The Turks colonized this region for hundreds of years before the British and French showed up and were more brutal and invasive than the Europeans (look up why there are so few Samaritans left). The Iranians have been intervening directly in Lebanon and Afghanistan for at least the past 30 years, colonized what is now called ‘Iran’ and historically competed with the Turks about who would colonize the region (and converted nearly the entire population of their sphere of influence to Shiism by force).

      Reply to Comment
      • William Burns

        Why is there a double standard for western intervention? One word: Iraq.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Yeah, and before the Iraq war there was no double standard? The Turks had special forces operating in North Iraq with minimal coordination with the Americans and no one gave a crap. The Iranians sent fighters to Southern Iraq and no one gave a crap. Yeah, tell me more about double standards and how they are due to the Iraq war.

          Reply to Comment
          • Piotr Berman

            Are we so poor to have only one standard? Isn’t it better to have one for every occasion, and some to spare? Malcontents complain that this defeats the very notion of “standard”, but you can never please them in any case.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            If you have more than one standard then any justification for your standard as being universal and just is empty from the get-go.

            Reply to Comment
      • Oh, stop with your tough guy bullshit – if you’re not afraid of the consequences of bombs and war, you’ve got a problem.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Of course I am afraid of the consequences of bombs and war. I also wish my enemies to be as weak as possible when they occur in the future. Anyone who think that the Middle East is a peaceful nirvana where one doesn’t need to worry about the next war is clinically insane. And yes, the usual response to such an argument is that Israel is the cause of instability and war in the region and so if it minded its own business there would be no need to think about the next war. But that argument too is insane given the instability and conflict in the region in the last few years and the regional war that is taking place in Syria which Israel had no hand in starting.

          Reply to Comment
          • Deterrence – we’ve got it, it works, no need to go bombing everyone. That’s not nirvana, that’s not insane, that’s reality.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Deterrence only works while it works and if you are willing to take steps to demonstrate that your red lines are real. In this case it FAILED because Hezbollah proceeded to try to transfer missiles despite the pretty clear red lines that Israel drew. Sometimes deterrence fails and someone miscalculates or gambles. That too is reality. What happens then?

            Reply to Comment
          • You cannot deter people from doing what you do all the time, in this case amass weapons. You’re asking them to accept their inferiority, which is both wrong and unlikely to work around here. What you can do, if you are militarily strong enough, is deter them from doing what you DON’T do because while they might like to make you the inferior one, they don’t have the power and would pay dearly for the attempt. If Israel stopped attacking its neighbors while they all understood that if they attacked Israel they would catch hell for it, they would stop attacking – for the sake of self-preservation. Case in point – the 2006 Second Lebanon War and its aftermath.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            That is the most nonsensical definition of deterrence I have ever heard. Would you be willing to point me to a single book on strategy that supports your definition of deterrence?

            What you are saying that until after Hezbollah gets nuclear weapons Israel should sit by and do nothing and that your theory of deterrence would only be proven wrong by the use of nuclear weapons on Israeli cities.

            If I go back 6 years to the Second Lebanon War am I really going to find articles written by you supporting that war in the interests of deterrence?

            Reply to Comment
          • If it’s nonsense to you, that’s encouraging. And please do check what I wrote in the JPost during the 2nd Leb War – I supported it for the first week or so and then said that was enough – pretty much like the rest of the sane world.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            So, you can’t point to anyone that supports your ridiculous definition?

            Reply to Comment
    3. directrob

      In this case Israel is bombing should be interpreted as the US and Israel are bombing. It makes humanitarian military intervention unlikely.

      Reply to Comment
      • William Burns

        Maybe that’s connected to the fact that Iran (which certainly had a more legitimate grudge against Saddam than the US ever had) and Turkey didn’t destroy an entire society. Anyway, double standards? What if Americans were being killed by Pakistani drones?

        Reply to Comment
        • William Burns

          This comment was meant to reply to Kolumn9′s reply to my comment above. Not sure how it got here.

          Reply to Comment
    4. The presumption for the Iraqi intervention was that Shiites, being oppressed under Saddam, would welcome the US. The presumption for Syria is that Alawites, peopling command and control, will not. The immediate slaughter the West would have to perform could be great. Which leaves the creation of buffer zones and the interdiction of material transfer–which Israel has begun.

      Accepting refugees in Israel would be a brave, bold move. It may be forced through population panic. But the present logic of Israeli demographic and security stability argue against voluntary acceptance.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Lightbown

      The guys here advocating intervention, including Noam, don’t seem to worry that it will simply make a bad situation very much worse. The old adage that fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity was never more true than in the present war in Syria. It can get very much worse there and western intervention would ensure that happens.

      And quite frankly Noam this article is rubbish on a number of levels. A few pointers
      1) It would be nice if advocates of intervention would at least acknowledge that without a UNSC resolution (which will not happen) intervention would be illegal.
      2)Israeli involvement on the humanitarian side of the conflict? That’s the worse joke I’ve heard in a very long time.
      3)Israel does NOT want to be accepted into the Middle East. It’s the villa in the jungle, remember?
      4)”aid delegations to Haiti”. What do you mean by that? The public relations exercise of sending a military hospital with great fanfare to Haiti that returned the moment the mainstream media circus had moved on? Netanyahu was at Ben Gurion airport welcoming them home less than three weeks after they had left. (And don’t forget the Cubans were there first, are still there, had five hospitals operating there at one time, yet nobody but the Haitians ever noticed.)
      5)The Syrian conflict is not a war by the state against its citizens. It is principally a defensive war against a foreign invasion by fanatics and jihadists from Iraq, Libya and elsewhere who are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and to some extent Turkey, all with approval from the US. There are also allegations that the $150 billion or so that went missing from Libya has in part been used to help finance this invasion. You can also put Israel down amongst the invaders. And don’t forget that Mossad, MI6, CIA and French special force have been operating in Syria for those two years now.

      Meanwhile I am waiting to hear how the west explains away the allegation this morning from the UN that the Syrian opposition used chemical weapons. So far the silence from US,UK and France has been deafening. Now why would that be?

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >It would be nice if advocates of intervention would at least acknowledge that without a UNSC resolution (which will not happen) intervention would be illegal.

        Nonsense.

        >Israeli involvement on the humanitarian side of the conflict? That’s the worse joke I’ve heard in a very long time.

        Leftist haters would rather deny obvious than admit that Israel is not THAT bad.

        >Israel does NOT want to be accepted into the Middle East. It’s the villa in the jungle, remember?

        Nonsense.

        4)”aid delegations to Haiti”. What do you mean by that? The public relations exercise of sending a military hospital with great fanfare to Haiti that returned the moment the mainstream media circus had moved on? Netanyahu was at Ben Gurion airport welcoming them home less than three weeks after they had left. (And don’t forget the Cubans were there first, are still there, had five hospitals operating there at one time, yet nobody but the Haitians ever noticed.)

        More hatespeech.

        >The Syrian conflict is not a war by the state against its citizens.

        Nonsense. Without a strong support by locals, foreign invaders would not be able to achieve anything.

        >It is principally a defensive war against a foreign invasion by fanatics and jihadists from Iraq, Libya and elsewhere who are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and to some extent Turkey, all with approval from the US.

        Invasion? But how can Arabs invade Arabs?

        > There are also allegations that the $150 billion or so that went missing from Libya has in part been used to help finance this invasion.

        Nonsense. $150 billion is more than Assad would ever dream to have as his defence budget.

        With such funding rebels should have had tanks and fighter airplanes.

        >You can also put Israel down amongst the invaders. And don’t forget that Mossad, MI6, CIA and French special force have been operating in Syria for those two years now.

        Two? Not twenty two?

        3rd grade conspiracy theories for the illiterate are just that – conspiracy theories for the illiterate.

        >Meanwhile I am waiting to hear how the west explains away the allegation this morning from the UN that the Syrian opposition used chemical weapons. So far the silence from US,UK and France has been deafening. Now why would that be?

        >Carla del Ponte told Swiss TV there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”

        Because it is not clear whether chemical weapons were used at all, and if they were – by what side.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Lightbown

          Whatever it is you have written I have no comment to make.

          Reply to Comment
    6. Richard Witty

      Noam,
      Thank you for breaking constraining taboos, always.

      Do you see an end setting that might have a prospect of stability?

      For all the reticence to imply that most Arab communities (many others) have not yet established functioning democracies, as far as a pluralistic Syria is concerned, that is implied.

      The second string is to go national (Balkans, Israel), partitioning ethnic majorities.

      That is preferable to constant war, but also creates the political norm of nationalism (rather than pluralism) as imprinted.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Leen

      Well, the UN has said that sarin gas has been used by the opposition, so I’m guessing the red line has been crossed, but by the opposition and not Assad.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ramzi

      I watched a compelling argument today from Nicholas Noe against interventing.

      The opposing forces in this conflict now view this as an existential struggle, whether we like it or not, and there are actors involved who are taking every opportunity to stoke sectarian tensions across the region. Increasing the military capability of the rebels will fuel a zero-sum war, and broaden the scope of violence to Lebanon and Iraq. With as much military capability as the regime has, especially with Hezbollah and Iran behind it, there is potential for a massive increase in the violence and the destruction.

      Every military solution to this conflict be a total disaster for the Syrian people.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Except of course for the fact that the regime, Iran and Hezbollah are making a very dedicated attempt at solving the conflict with a military solution and have been attempting such a military solution for the past 2 years as the 70,000+ dead Syrians will attest.

        An argument against intervention or arms supplies to the rebels is an argument for letting Assad, Iran and Hezbollah slaughter their way to victory. At least be explicit about it instead of hiding behind a ‘things can get worse’ approach without elaborating on a desired and realistic end-game.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Lightbown

          The regime offered a truce and the rebels refused. But the only way forward remains that of bringing the violence to an end.Stop the violence and then negotiate. The Russians have indicated they will not insist that Assad remains in power so that could also be on the table for a negotiated settlement. So why does the US not lean on the Saudis and Qatar to get them to stop funding the violence and why does it not drag the rebels screaming and kicking to the negotiating table? Because a failed state suits US policy better. But in reality a stable Syria would probably be better for Israel. And it would sure as hell be better for the Syrian civilians caught up in all this mayhem that is entirely the fault of outside actors who have absolutely no interest in their well-being.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            The Russians don’t get to decide whether Assad stays in power. What they indicate is irrelevant. The regime wants a truce as long as Assad stays in power, meaning that Assad, Hezbollah and Iran win the war.

            What you call ‘violence’ is an attempt to remove Assad from power. Stopping the ‘violence’ means accepting that Assad wins the war and that is what you are advocating. This should be said in the most explicit way possible instead of hiding behind BS calls for non-intervention.

            Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          This would have been a persuasive case if it were 2011 or even early 2012. However, the rebels have proven to be capable of conducting war crimes and crimes against humanity. And now there is a possibility that they have used chemical weapons against the Syrian people too. There is also some concern from UN genocide experts that should Assad fall, the Alawites will suffer a genocide similar to the Tutsis (where they were ‘collectively responsible’ for a previous Tutsi who was oppressive and murderous).

          I think this war has amassed too many players, and I cannot for the life of me see how this would end in any positive way. I personally have no opinion regarding intervention, but I am concerned that arming the rebels would eventually fall in Al-Nusra’s hand (which is the Syrian Al-Qaeda) because they are one of the biggest and strongest militias in Syria. Seems very Afghani Mujahideen in 1980s if you ask me.

          Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            The armed rebels always were a bunch of criminals. Who do you think was setting off car bombs in crowded civilian areas? (But don’t put me down as a supporter of Assad.)

            You don’t put out a fire with kerosene. Putting more weapons and fighters/soldiers into Syria will just make it worse. Stopping the money and weapons into Syria and enforcing a truce, however leaky at first, is the only credible option for moving towards peace and a chance to get the country back to some sort of normality. Yes, the longer this conflict goes on the harder it gets, but that’s the whole point of opposing the warped logic of Noam’s article. As Piotr rightly points out, humanitarian intervention is an oxymoron.

            Reply to Comment
          • Leen

            I have to admit Richard, I was more leaning towards the opposition in 2011 and for the better part of 2012 but after reading human rights reports from UN, Amnesty and HRW, I’ve come to the conclusion that the rebels are just as nasty as Assad.

            And when reports came out that KSA and Qatar were arming them, it all felt like what happened to Bahrain. Intervention would have been possible, I think if it was conducted in the very early days, but now intervention would likely make Syria another Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. Actually, I think it would be worse, I think there will be an extremely ugly civil war after Assad goes. It is no secret that the opposition group is not united, they are united in the fact they do not want Assad. However there has been reports of some clashes between the Kurdish militia/FSA and the Al-Nusra. To me that is only a foreshadow of what is to become.

            I think when Assad falls as a result of intervention, there are 3 likely scenarios that would come out; Syria will be cut up into several states, an Islamic state will be imposed, or a very bloody civil war would ensure which would end in an authoritarian figure.

            But in the end, my support ofcourse goes to all the Syrian civilians who have died, lost their homes and have been a victim of this onslaught, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political ideology.

            Reply to Comment
    9. Piotr Berman

      Humanitarian intervention is like liberal Zionism, mature content, “People’s Democratic Republic — all oxymorons.

      Reply to Comment
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