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How the World Could—and Maybe Should—Intervene in Syria
By Anne-Marie Slaughter
Allowing the violence to go on could have worse consequences than an intervention, though only one that meets certain conditions.
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In his article on possible intervention in Syria, Steven Cook has broached a subject that I agree must be raised. He forces us to confront the possibility -- he would argue the probability -- that the Western mantra of the inevitability of Assad's fall is both the triumph of hope over expectation and a cover for not taking more direct action to help the Syrian opposition. Saying it will not make it so, and as Cook points out, tightening sanctions and regional and international isolation is not having any measurable effect on Assad's calculations about his ability to stay in power. Indeed, they may even be stiffening his resistance. Cook challenges us to face alternative scenarios that will force the international community to make much more difficult choices. Suppose Assad is still in power a year from now, having killed 10 or 15 thousand of his people -- the number that his father obliterated in the city of Hama in 1982. Or suppose Syria descends into full-fledged civil war with an outgunned rebel army holding specific towns and even swathes of territory against a central government armed by Russia and Iran. Can fellow Arab states and the United Nations stand by and allow either scenario to play out?
There are four conditions an intervention would have to meet
Consider the consequences. If the Arab League, the U.S., the
European Union, Turkey, and the UN Secretary General spend a year wringing
their hands as the death toll continues to mount, the responsibility to protect
(R2P) doctrine will be exposed as a convenient fiction for power politics or
oil politics, feeding precisely the cynicism and conspiracy theories in the
Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. spends its public diplomacy budget and
countless diplomatic hours trying to debunk. If you believe, as I do, that R2P
foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long
term, that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of
genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic
cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they
are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those
acts in the first place. Governments' systematic abuse of their own citizens
have either caused or presaged countless conflicts around the world: the crimes
against humanity perpetrated against the Jews and other minorities by the Nazi
government before World War II; Saddam Hussein's systematic war crimes in his
war with Iran in the 1980s before his invasion of Kuwait in 1991; the Rwandan
genocide leading to 15 years of conflict in the Congo; the ethnic cleansing in
the Balkans before and during the war in Bosnia, Croatia, and ultimately
Kosovo; and countless cases of such behavior triggering civil war and ethnic
conflict that create massive refugee flows and destabilization across entire
regions. Deterrence and prevention of crimes of this magnitude is thus a force
Equally important is the age-old strategic need for
credibility. If the U.S. says it stands behind R2P but then does nothing in a
case where it applies, not only will dictators around the world draw their own
conclusions, but belief in the U.S. commitment to other international norms and
obligations also weakens, just at a time when the U.S. grand strategy is to
expand and strengthen an effective international order. The credibility of the
U.S. commitment to its own proclaimed values will also take yet another
critical hit with every young person in the Middle East fighting for liberty,
democracy, and justice.
The second scenario is even worse. A full-fledged civil war
in Syria could quickly become a
proxy war between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and/or at least some NATO
countries on one side against Iran, Russia, Hizbollah, and possibly Iraq and
Hamas on the other. That is a deeply dangerous and destabilizing prospect.
Streams of refugees will burden and potentially disrupt local politics in
Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. The Kurds in Iraq and Turkey and the Druze
in Lebanon might join in on the side of their respective Syrian cousins. The
economy of the entire region would be badly disrupted, even independent of any
impact on oil prices. And Syria itself would be devastated, inviting the same
power struggles and sectarian violence we see in Iraq today.
Still, intervention makes sense only if it actually has a
higher chance of making things better than making them worse. In the Syrian
case, a number of conditions would have to be met to satisfy this test. First,
the Syrian opposition itself would have to call for some kind of armed
intervention. Groups of protesters in different towns have requested
international help, but the Syrian National Council would have to make a formal
request. Second, the Arab League would have to endorse this request by a
substantial majority vote.
Third, the actual intervention proposed would in fact have
to be limitedto protection of civilians through buffer zones and humanitarian cordons around
specific cities, perhaps accompanied by airstrikes against Syrian army tanks
moving against those cities. It could not, as in Libya, take the form of active
help to the opposition in their effort to topple the government. Instead, the
Arab League should work with the opposition and members of the business
community and the army within Syria to craft a political transition plan that
would create some kind of unity government and a timetable for elections.
Today, the Arab League proposed a plan for Assad to step down and be followed by his vice president and the formation of a national unity government followed by elections; the Syrian government dismissedit out of hand as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and "flagrant interference in internal affairs." The Arab League should next try to invite both members of the opposition and members of the Syrian business community and various minorities to work on a plan that would come from Syrian citizens as well as the League.
Fourth, the intervention would have to receive the
authorization of a majority of the members of the UN Security Council --
Russia, actively arming Assad, will probably never go along, no matter how
necessary -- as an exercise of the responsibility to protect doctrine, with
clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the
resolution. Finally, Turkish and Arab troops would have to take the lead in
creating zones to protect civilians, backed by NATO logistics and intelligence
support if necessary.
Openly raising the possibility of armed intervention does not mean that intervention is bound to occur. Much of the diplomatic activity to date has been aimed at getting Assad's supporters -- particularly the Sunni business community of Damascus and Aleppo -- to rethink their allegiances. It is a game of perceptions and assumptions, whereby the international community has tried to make Assad's fall seem inevitable and Assad himself has made clear that he will not be cowed into leaving or making real concessions. Injecting the possibility of armed intervention to protect opposition protesters into this mix, with the accompanying prospect of a much longer and much more destructive conflict in which more members of the military could defect to the Free Syrian Army, could tip this domestic political balance in favor of a negotiated deal and put real internal pressure on Assad. It is still true, however, that the credible threat of force requires an actual willingness to make good on that threat.
Last week the Carnegie Corporation, the Stanley Foundation,
and the MacArthur Foundation sponsored a terrific conference on
the next decade of R2P. Panel members discussed the pros and cons of R2P
interventions to date and what we might expect in the future. During the
question period after the second
morning panel, former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal
for the Former Yugoslavia and current International Crisis Group President
Louise Arbour said that she agreed with Gareth Evans' (the former Australian
foreign minister and a member of the original commission that gave rise to R2P)
analysis that the preconditions for an R2P intervention in Syria were not met.
Arbour said that, in terms of the magnitude of the crimes being committed in
Syria (over 5,000 deaths, destruction of opposition towns) and the lack of effective
alternatives other than force, the threshold for an R2P intervention was met.
But she said an intervention in Syria failed the third criterion, whether
intervention would do more good than harm.
I disagree with Arbour's assessment, if in fact the conditions
I spelled out above could be met. But that's not the point. She made the
further point that if the international community is NOT going to intervene,
then R2P includes the responsibility to tell protesters on the ground that help
will not be forthcoming, so that they can make their own plans accordingly.
Arbour is right. But then the U.S., Turkish, and other governments saying that
Assad's fall is "just a matter of time" must be prepared to answer
the question posed by protesters in the picture below honestly: "we won't
be coming." But then we must also be prepared to face the consequences. In
a recent Al Jazeera report,
the source of the photo at the top of this page, reporter Zeina Khodr quoted
one opposition figure as saying that Syria will descend into "endless
Khodr added, "Activists, however, say that armed rebellion is being fueled by the lack of action from the international community, which has made them realize they have no choice but to take up arms and fight this battle alone."
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