A brief survey of the Syrian intervention debate

As the humanitarian horrors in Syria continue, the debate about foreign intervention intensifies. Today the Daily Telegraph published a pro-intervention blog post by Michael Weiss, who heads Communications and Public Relations at the Henry Jackson Society, a self-described “non-partisan” think tank with neoconservative affiliations.

Weiss mainly focuses on Israel-Palestine and human rights in the Middle East. He also headed “Just Journalism”, a media monitoring organization focused on “how Israel and Middle East issues are reported in the UK” prior to its September 2011 closure (lack of funding was cited). His own work has been widely published and last month Foreign Affairs printed his “What it Will Take to Intervene in Syria“, where he argued that intervention “at this moment would be premature” and then proceeded to describe how it could be executed anyway. Less than a month later the crux of Weiss’s position is that Bashar al-Assad is no longer a legitimate leader and Iran and Russia are already “intervening” in Syria, so the West should too:

…Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have all been “intervening” in Syria’s internal affairs for ten months now. Meanwhile, the Arab League, the United States and the European Union have all determined that any claim to sovereignty Assad might have had in 2011 is null and void in 2012. What is needed, therefore, is not condemnations, demarches and shuttered embassies but a Western equivalent of intervention in Syria, namely in the form of:

• Humanitarian “safe areas” to provide food, aid and medical supplies to the civilian population and give the various opposition groups a headquarters inside their own country
• Advanced weapons and communication devices for the Syrian rebels
• A no-fly zone to stop the regime from using its aircraft to conduct reconnaissance, offload security personnel and – yes – strafe rebel strongholds from the sky.

Weiss also strongly criticizes the US, UK and France for not working to push the Assad government out more forcibly:

Hillary Clinton, William Hague and Alain Juppe can grumble all they like about travesties at Turtle Bay and the inevitability of Assad’s fall. Even if they got their toothless Security Council resolution calling for Assad’s departure, then what? Would he pack up and go quietly? If so, where to? How’s the tabouleh in the Black Sea?

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, who supported intervention in Libya in the very early stages of the uprising, wrote in CNN today that Russia and China’s vetoing of last week’s United Nations draft Security Council resolution on Syria has made the reality on the ground more dangerous for Syrians. He accordingly urges more consideration of the “various military options available” (while conceding that taking such action is currently premature) and makes the case that Western powers have in fact been reluctant to intervene despite growing necessity:

The “anti-imperialists” will, as they often do, cry foul. This time, though, they will find themselves on the wrong side. None of the Western powers has come out in even tepid support of military intervention. Consumed by their own internal problems, this is not at all something they want. But it may be something the Syrian people need.

Yesterday US intelligence veteran and foreign policy analyst Paul Pillar wrote that one reason why Russia and China vetoed the UN draft resolution was because of their experience with Libya:

The Russians in particular made it clear they were determined not to fall again for what they regarded as a bait and switch on Libya, in which a NATO military intervention that received multilateral support on humanitarian grounds quickly morphed into support for toppling the Libyan regime.

Pillar appears to be adamantly on the anti-intervention side. He argues that foreign intervention in Libya has given Iran and North Korea “the worst possible message” with respect to their own security interests and alleged nuclear ambitions and that “Sectarian divisions in Syria would make the aftermath of even a low-cost regime-toppling intervention messier than Libya.”

The American Security Projects’ Joshua Foust also weighed in on the Libya/Syria comparison in the context of the intervention debate in the Atlantic today:

In a vacuum, intervening to prevent mass killings in Libya made sense. Libya, however, did not (and does not) exist in a vacuum. It has both internal and regional politics. So does Syria. The failure to gain international buy-in to do something — not necessarily militarily but some response — to the atrocities there is a direct consequence of interventionists ignoring politics in their rush to do good. Unfortunately, the people of Syria are now paying the price, and will continue to do so.

As reported by Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy, this weekend several members of congress touched on the Syria intervention debate at the 2012 Munich Security Conference as well. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry echoed Pillar and Foust’s argument that “Syria is not Libya” but added that:

…nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way.

Interestingly, while senate hawks John McCain and Joe Lieberman had harsher words for Russia and China, they, like Kerry, avoided advocating intervention directly. According to Lieberman:

What’s happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening…. I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don’t have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom.

Pro-interventionists like Weiss aside, many of whom have been arguing for the West to go into Syria for months (consider the output of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Foreign Policy Initiative on the issue), the trend in Washington seems to be that more could and should be done about Syria, but other considerations are getting in the way. Meanwhile, according to a poll conducted by Shibley Telhami in October, an overwhelming majority from the Arab countries he surveyed support the Syrian rebels over the government, but are divided about foreign intervention. During the question-answer period of the poll’s launch event at the Brookings Institution, Telhami added that Syrians themselves are also “divided” on the issue: “My suspicion is many Syrians want international intervention, many don’t.”

It will be interesting to see how ongoing brutality by Assad’s forces will affect this debate not only among the most important actors, the Syrian people, but foreign governments too.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. As usual, the standard narrative informs us about the Syrian situation in a selective manner, very selective.

    If you look at the Arab League observers report, it makes several points that contradict the Western media narrative:

    1 ) There are groups enthusiastically supporting the regime.
    2) There are armed groups fighting the regime.
    3) Peaceful demonstrations largely proceed without government interference.
    4) The Arab League mission served to calm things and resolved several stand-offs.

    I also read a leaked text of the resolution that included Russia’s suggestions. Instead of approving the suggestions, the US didn’t not like Russia’s insistence on no foreign military action. And the US was unwilling to acknowledge that there were armed groups fighting
    the Syrian government or agree that they should lay down their arms as part of a cease fire with the government. And they called Russia’s veto of a resolution not containing these changes “disgusting.”

    What comes across clearly is that the so-called international community wants foreign intervention. And if not foreign intervention is not officially sanctioned, it will bolster the existing rebellion and start a civil war. As with Qaddhafi, Assad must go, regardless of what the majority of Syrians think.

    If the “international community” wanted to lessen tensions, it would increase the presence of the observer mission, which has had a calming effect. Instead, it is sending in mercenaries and undercover special forces.

  2. I really think this report is remiss in not addressing more specifically the demographics of Syria, and despite our public disputes with the regime the religiously tolerant attitude of the Assad regime. There are many minorities in Syria that support the Assad regime, and it is principally Sunni-fundamentalist Muslims who are behind the overthrow.

    As to the armed insurgency, there are reports connecting Salafist Libyans, Quaddaffy’s weapons stockpiles showing up in Syria. As with the MEK, we are providing more than moral support.

  3. It is no secret why so many Arabs support the opposition in Syria. They get their news from Al Jazeera. Qatar – a Wahabi dictatorship that own Al Jazeera – is now cashing the goodwill it has gotten with reasonably neutral reporting by giving unconditional support to any uprising in the Arab world that might bring Islamic fundamentalists to power.

    We did not prevent mass killings in Libya. Until we intervened Gadaffi had not taken revenge in those regions he reconquered. We will never know what he might have done later on but nearly certainly our intervention lead to more dead Libyans (30,000) than if we had stayed home. Not to mention the devastation and the anarchy.

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