The use of chemical weapons in Syria has reopened arguments in western states about intervention, but so far with results that favour inaction rather than action. The defeat of the British government in a parliamentary vote on 29 August 2013 reflected widespread opposition in the UK even to limited intervention in the form of air-strikes, while the forthcoming congressional votes in the United States also hang in the balance despite strong recommendations by President Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry.
The limited strikes envisaged by Britain's prime minister David Cameron (before his defeat) and now Barack Obama's administration are intended not to change the course of the civil war but to respond to the use of an abhorrent form of weaponry which an international statute specifically prohibits. In this sense it is difficult to see why the London parliamentarians voted as they did. The shadow of Iraq is of course the main culprit. Yet there are stark differences between the two situations: a full land invasion based on an absence of credible evidence in one case, and a limited set of strikes in the face of an extremely well-documented atrocity in the other. These sere clear at least to France, which was opposed to the Iraq war but has been hawkish on Syria.
What is at stake in Syria is a major humanitarian catastrophe with significant geopolitical implications. This makes it necessary to think hard about Syria in its own terms, put visceral responses based on Iraq aside, and ask whether intervention is justified in moral and strategic terms. There has, over the two years since the outbreak of Syria's revolt, been very little such thinking in the public domain. That is mainly because intervention has simply not been on the agenda.
The left-right consensus
On a more general level, the anti-interventionist camp in the west is informed by two influential currents. The first comes from the right. It holds that Arab countries are inhabited by hopelessly troubled peoples and nations: doomed places locked in their irresolvable, ancient disputes and bloodthirsty worldviews. Accordingly, the west should do only one thing: stay away. The second anti-interventionist current comes from the left. Its dominant anti-imperialist narrative demonises not the Arabs or Muslims, but the west itself. The adherents of this view are ever ready, both psychologically and ideologically, to accuse the "colonial and hegemonic" west of responsibility for the ailments of the rest of the world.
Both anti-interventionist currents rely on a false characterisation of self and others. And both are in play in the west's response to the recent shifts in the Arab world, especially in the case of Syria. The anti-interventionist left and right alike insist on ignoring or misidentifying successful interventions in the Arab region. No one wants to remember, let alone celebrate, Operation Provide Comfort which aimed - following the war over Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Shi'a uprising in southern Iraq that followied - at protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq in the early 1990s. That intervention succeed not only in protecting and aiding the Kurds, but also created a political entity that was to remain susbstantially stable even in Iraq's roughest years. In recent years, that Kurdish entity has witnessed great economic development. It is certainly not Norway, but it is a fairly democratic, politically stable, economically prosperous - and generally pro-west - region.
More recent, and more relevant to current events in the Arab world, is the Nato intervention in Libya in 2011. Here, there is a near universal tendency to admit or assume the failure of intervention no matter what happens. And it's true that Libya today is far from a model of democracy and stability. But keep in mind that this was a place poised for a long and brutal war between a ruthless, resourceful dictator and his subjects. Libya without intervention could have easily been another Syria. It is enough to note the fact that while there is a Syrian refugee crisis (with about 3 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries), there are hardly any Libyan refugees (spare a handful of persons comprised of some of Gaddafi's family and his close circle).
Yet the west, which has lost confidence in its ability to do good in the world, is reluctant to oppose the charge that the Libya operation was a failure. When, for example, the Russians attempt to justify their opposition to an intervention in Syria by repeatedyl saying that they "do not want another Libya'", not a single Nato government answers, "but what is wrong with Libya?". Libya indeed has its fair share of problems these days. But it has also had a fair and open election - the only one north Africa that the Islamists did not win. In any case, Libya nowadays appears to be more stable than Egypt, where there was no (and no need for) outside intervention. Still, both western governments and their publics were determined to confess failure in Libya at the first opportunity. The attack on the United States embassy provided the occasion: the incident, in which ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed, was eagerly adopted for that purpose, even though it remained an isolated event that made very little impact on the general situation in that country.
No doubt the west has also made several failed interventions, Iraq being the most salient . Yet there have also been disasters permitted by non-intervention, Rwanda the most obvious. Syria is in the latter category. There are of course no easy recipes for successful interventions, and previous cases offer only limited lessons and no general rule - except perhaps that when the predicament of whether or not to intervene arises, there is a need to exercise wise judgment and apt leadership.
The real choice
Many journalists, politicians, and defence experts warn of the risks of military intervention in Syria, and advise against choosing this course. It would be extraordinary if there were no risks in such intervention, for there are risks in any military action. But the discussion should not simply be about the risks of intervention - It should also be about the risks of non-intervention. It is only when the two risks are compared that the question at hand can be dealt with adequately. In order to determine the cogency of the argument for (or against) intervention, some understanding of the risks of non-intervention is essential. If the latter are clear, present and significant, while the risks of intervention are only possible, then the case for non-intervention becomes weak.
For the last two years, those near and far from Syria have had the miserable privilege of observing the unfolding events there in the absence of any significant western military intervention. It is not a pretty picture by any measure. In the worst years of violence in after the American-led invasion of Iraq (2005-07), the average number of civilians killed was around 25,000. In two and a half years of conflict in Syria, more than 100,000 people have already been killed. Radical Islamist groups have taken root, building on the advantage of fertile ground: namely, an oppressed Sunni majority trying to extract its basic human and political rights from a brutal regime.
Syria, without intervention, continues to descend towards ever greater violence, destruction, chaos, radical influence elements, and spreading humanitarian catastrophe. But even this is not all - for more importantly, there is no conception whatsoever of how things can improve regarding any of these miseries if there is no intervention. There is no vision of how to a political settlement might be reached; no vision of how extremism, chaos, and violence will be contained and prevented via a non-interventionist stance.
The expected reply from non-interventionist quarters is that intervention will not improve things, but will only make them worse. But how do they know that? It is a possibility, for sure. On the other hand, the horrors we see now in Syria are not only a possibility, but a reality. They are out there in the towns, villages and streets of Syria. Then the non-interventionists switch tack and say that military interventions never work. This is nothing more than a blind ideological dogma. Many interventions have worked: the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia to end the rule of the Khmer Rouge, the Indian in former East Pakistan, the Tanzanian in Uganda, the Australian in East Timor, the United States and allies in Kurdish Iraq, the United Nations and Nato states in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. This is only a partial list.
In Syria, the choice is between leaving things the way they are now or intervening. The implications of the former choice are familiar: a continuation and deepening of the humanitarian crisis, an increase in radicalisation of all sorts, and the making of a chronically failed state and society. The only way to avoid this outcome is to do something to end the conflict. This must involve changing the balance of power on the ground. The aim of this change is either to help one side win the war conclusively, or to convince both sides to sit at the negotiating table in order to agree on a peaceful transition. With regard to the first option, either the regime or the rebels can be supported. To support the regime in its efforts to crush resistance and attack the civilian population, as the Russians are doing, would be morally outrageous.
The remaining option is to give the rebels military support. One way to attempt this is by helping the anti-Assad forces secure a decisive victory. Many, mindful of the fragmented nature of the opposition in Syria. fear that such a victory will result in chaos. It might also open the door to acts of revenge and massacres against the defeated Alawite community that has been implicated in Assad's brutality. If western powers believe that such fears are well justified, then they should try to help the opposition gain the upper hand without handing them total victory. This can be done by helping the rebels win the capital (and, preferably, other major cities with an overwhelming Sunni population). The aim here would be to compel the regime or its backers to go to a peace conference that would decide the future political shape of Syria.
It is important here to grasp why it is impossible for the regime to agree to such a conference under the current circumstances. The minimum such a conference can call for is some form of truly elected government. The regime knows, however, that it cannot secure its rule through genuine elections; otherwise, it would have done so a long time ago. Even if the conference ends up carving an Alawite entity in western, coastal Syria where many Alawites are concentrated, the Assad family would not be able to secure their dominion over this new polis. The glory of the Assad family in the eyes of the Alawites is that it had placed them at the top of the country's ruling (if not necessarily financial) pyramid. Once that family loses its grip over the rest of Syria, the Alawite community will have no need to stick to it. Others in the Alawite community would compete for power, especially in the context of free and open elections. All of this the Assad family and their close associates cannot accept unless they are considerably weakened or defeated.
The anti-intervention trap
The proponents of a "politically negotiated solution" to the Syrian crisis are right to say that such a solution is the desirable endgame. What they may not understand is that a necessary precondition to such a solution being reached is a decisive change in the momentum of the war on the ground in favour of the rebels, to force the regime and its backers to the negotiating table.
The means whereby this shift should happen are open for debate, but it appears clear that a "no-fly zone" to defend the areas currently occupied by the Free Syrian Army would be a significant step forward. This would provide security to a civilian population vulnerable to air-strikes from the Assad regime. It would also stem the flow of refugees, and enable food and medicine to flow to where they are needed. Whichever means is used to advance the rebels’ cause, this measure would send a very important signal of intent to the regime and its supporters that the game is up.
What about the Islamic extremists amongst the opposition? It is somewhat ironic that anti-interventionists should point to their existence as a decisive factor counting against intervention (as the journalist Robert Fisk regularly does with his characteristic anti-western glee). The failure on the part of the west to intervene is precisely what has led to a power and humanitarian vacuum, which Islamic extremists are adept at filling. In taking a decisive interventionist stance, the west would draw support away from the extremists, support for whom is in many cases very reluctantly given. If the west walks away from Syria, that in itself would be a considerable propaganda coup for the Islamists. It would be evidence that in face of the regime's gassing of thousands of civilians, the west is not prepared to lift a finger. There is no doubt that the London parliament's vote on 29 August is seen in this light by many in Syria.
The anti-interventionists also point to the array of external forces supporting the regime, such as Russia, Iran, and Hizbollah. But the fact that outside powers have already intervened in Syria does not constitute a reason for not intervening, quite the contrary. A failure to intervene essentially means handing victory on a silver plate to those powers. The west has no reason to appease these powers, and indeed has good reasons to assert its own authority against them.
The anti-intervention crowd must face the fact that the conflict in Syria will not go away, and is likely to produce many more years of bloodshed, destruction and a massive refugee crisis. These are bad things on their own. But they will also have disastrous implications inon a fragile region with unquestionable geopolitical significance for the whole world. It is a failure of morality and prudence for the western powers to turn away. For all kinds of reasons, economic and historical, there is little popular appetite for intervention in the west. This is why what is needed on the Syria question is credible and honest leadership, based on a clear-eyed view of the facts and the available options.