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US Strike on Syria & the Futility of Military Intervention

[U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Kerry delivers a joint press statement with Syrian Opposition Council Chairman Mouaz al-Khatib and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi , not pictured, in Rome, Italy, on February 28, 2013. Image from US Department of State.] [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Kerry delivers a joint press statement with Syrian Opposition Council Chairman Mouaz al-Khatib and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi , not pictured, in Rome, Italy, on February 28, 2013. Image from US Department of State.]

The death toll in Syria has exceeded 100,000. The refugee population approaches two million, including one million Syrian children and excluding the Palestinian refugee population which is enduring secondary forced displacement as a result of the Syrian conflict. The horrors of the conflict which began two and a half years ago, reached new heights amid reports of a chemical weapons attack that killed 1,000 civilians in Douma on 21 August 2013. The attack crossed the Obama-declared "red line" and intensified calls for military action against the Syrian regime. Now there are reports that the Obama Administration will indeed strike Syria in the coming days. According to reports, the strike will be swift and discrete. Its purpose seems to be more political, than military, as it is a loaded demonstration of military capability without the specter of a full-on intervention. This is not surprising. 

The US Administration understands that the conflict in Syria is also a proxy regional war aimed at shifting the balance of power in the Middle East. There is little possibility that the US can intervene in Syria and not trigger a broader regional conflict that it does not have the capacity to handle and that Syria's neighbors prefer to avoid. Meanwhile, Iraq's ominous shadow is chilling Europe's enthusiasm for another military operation in the Middle East. The UK prefers authorization from the UN Security Council to intervene in Syria. It has put forward a proposal to discuss that in the Security Council tomorrow 30 August 2013. However, that is unlikely to yield any results in light of Chinese and Russian support for the Syrian Regime. 

So what does this mean for the Syrian civilians who are enduring a tremendous humanitarian crisis? In the short to medium-term it is quite dismal. Even if the balance of political will and interests were to shift, military intervention will not solve the conflict nor miraculously end the crisis in Syria. To the contrary, the situation could get worse. Consider that in Libya, for example, "between the start of the conflict and the passage of UNSC Resolution 1973, approximately 1-2,000 civilians were killed. By the end of the NATO bombing campaign, 30-50,000 lives had been lost."  Moreover, Syria is markedly different than Libya. As I wrote in an IntLawGrrls post last year, intervention in Syria, similar to collective action taken in Libya is inappropriate because: 

  • Syria, unlike Libya, is not constituted of vast swaths of sparsely populated land. To the contrary, it is densely populated and relatively small.
  • Unlike Libya, Syria is not surrounded by regimes happy to see it fall. Its survival, or lack thereof, implicates regional and international relations in a myriad of significant ways, i.e., the conflict involves the question of Palestine, the question of resistance involving the Syria-Iran-Hizballah axis, the question of balance of power in the region, and the question of international forces that are attempting to leverage their power in a changing region – including the United States, European countries, Russia, and China.
  • Also, unlike Libya’s opposition, which was at least nominally united as a single body within the National Transition Council, the opposition’s local military wing – the Free Syrian Army – and the principal political opposition outside Syria – the Syrian National Council – are not united as a single body. Moreover, the internal opposition, now comprising some two hundred factions, is fragmented and some groups within harbor goals that are fundamentally antithetical to others. On whose behalf will the international community intervene? Which civilians will be spared and which will be labeled as legitimate targets for their ongoing support of, and involvement with, the Syrian regime?

In their poignant piece, Why There is No Military Solution to the Syrian ConflictAsli Bali and Aziz Rana explain: 

... [T]here is likely no form of direct or indirect military involvement in the conflict that will spare civilians or advance either side towards a decisive victory. In short, there are too many interveners and too many strategic interests at stake for any side to allow too great a tipping of the balance. Some might argue that the ongoing destabilization of Syria serves its own strategic purposes. Aside from the deep moral bankruptcy of such a position, its logic of perpetual conflict threatens to engulf the region with spillover effects radiating beyond the control of potential interveners.


Direct intervention to secure or destroy chemical weapons caches will do little to address the principal armed threat facing civilians. In order to defeat the regime militarily, the United States and its allies would have to dramatically heighten the magnitude of destruction wrought on the country, resulting in greater civilian casualties. It may set the stage for escalating internecine conflict not only pitting Sunni constituencies backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar against opponents that they increasingly identify in sectarian or ethnic terms, but also consuming neighborhoods in inter-militia wars. The result would be a deeply destabilized Syria bordering on Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, creating the potential for a long-term proxy war between regional Sunni and Shiite political forces. The eventual outcome would have no clear winner, but a multitude of losers—most crucially ordinary Syrian civilians.

This of course not a call to idly sit back and watch Syria tear itself apart. To the contrary, it only heightens the necessity of a diplomatic solution - as elusive as that may seem. In his insightful essay, Chemical Attacks and Military Intervention, Omar Dahi explains:  

A political settlement would be the beginning not end of the struggle. Right now, the struggle is drowned out by a war of annihilation that is also a proxy war by regional countries at the expense of Syrians. There is no doubt that the Syrian regime has waged a war of destruction against its own people with decisive material and political support from Iran and Russia, and that it bears the primary responsibility for the violence. It has not shown a serious inclination for anything other than total victory. However, from the start of the uprising, the Gulf countries immediately saw the opportunity to defeat Iran in Syria and have used their money and arms to highjack the uprising and the language of the revolution in the benefit of a sordid counterrevolutionary agenda. This has led Iran to become more entrenched in its support of Syria, and to increase its support at every turn. The United States and its allies were setting up the possibilities for an endless civil war. The fact that the United States is threatening to strike now has nothing to do with the welfare of Syrians, and everything to do with the United States maintaining its own "credibility," its position as a hegemonic power.


Both the supporters of the government and the rebels continue to frame the possible outcomes of the conflict as either a victory for the government or the rebels—a way to avoid coming to terms with the third possibility: that both sides have already lost. The only option left for Syrians still interested in stopping the fall further down the abyss is to demand a political settlement and massive aid to help heal the mass humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria and the neighboring countries. It would be the beginning of politics and possibilities—very bleak ones as things stand, but nevetheless ones that do not now exist.

It is most difficult to witness this human catastrophe unfold and do "nothing" about it. But in this case, "something," in the form of military intervention, offers little additional benefit and significant negative unknowns. It is best to build political, legal, and moral pressure for a political solution. Meanwhile, we can also give serious thought to the notion of "preventive" solutions. The policies and regimes that have been propped up by powerful external actors, like the United States, have created these dreadful contradictions where there are no optimal choices for solutions. As Bassam Haddad noted nearly two years ago, enemies of Syria, not just of the Syrian Regime, seek to foster a protracted conflict wherein Syrian resources are ultimately depleted.

Finally, as the venerable Kissinger used to say in the 1980s (I am paraphrasing): let the Iranians and Iraqis kill each other into impotence, for it facilitates things for the United States thereafter. Thus, some would like Syrians to continue killing each other, for a while longer, before an intervention is advanced. They would be happy to see Syria weaken even further its institutions and infrastructure, while social and political divisions are excascerbated enough to undercut possibilities of collective action for a long time to come. Syria’s long-term trajectory after the Ba'ath fall is an unknown, whether one considers questions of resistance, anti-imperialism or the struggle for restoring the Golan. So, from the perspective of those in the "Kissinger camp", why not wait for Syria and Syrians to disempower themselves further, instead of pushing for a swift conclusion now? If one, or a government, supports the safety of the apartheid state of Israel, what else would be better than a protracted killing field in Syria?

For more readings on Syria, I recommend Jadaliyya's Syria Page.

[This piece was originally posted on the author's blog.]

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