The sustained and brutal repression of civil unrest in Syria has led to over 5,000 deaths in nine months, according to a recent UN report. Less than a year ago, similar scenes in Libya triggered the International Community’s decision to launch military operations in order to fulfil its “responsibility to protect” (R2P), a norm adopted by the UN in 2005 to prevent mass atrocities. Many are now calling for the same Western-backed military response to the Syrian crisis, but this article will argue that these calls must be resisted.
The socio-geographic conditions in Syria make an intervention extremely complex and a swift victory unlikely. The Libyan population was largely concentrated along a single highway linking Benghazi and Tripoli, making it possible to conduct a successful intervention using only air strikes.
The Syrian population, however, is spread more evenly across its landmass and a land invasion would be necessary to seize control of the country. Furthermore, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian military is inextricably linked with the ruling Assad regime and will fight hard for its survival. An intervention would involve considerable loss of life and a commitment more similar to that involved in the Iraq war than the NATO operation in Libya. An invading alliance would be burdened not only with toppling a strong regime, but with nation-building too in one of the Arab world’s most socially complex states. History warns us that our results in such engagements have been mixed.
History also warns us of the importance of local support for intervention which, in the case of Syria, is questionable. Syrians have been angered by recent Western wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as American support for the Israeli persecution of their Palestinian neighbours. A Western led operation could galvanize large swathes of the population to support the existing regime and feed into the government rhetoric of a foreign-led insurgency.
Moreover, the destabilizing effects of an invasion in the short term could well be severe, with possible attacks on Israeli and Western interests through terrorist proxies as well as threats from an ever more muscular Iranian government. Invading a nation as geopolitically important as Syria involves great risks and too many unknowns.
Though the costs of non-intervention remain painfully high, it is important the West avoid sending in troops, lest they prolong the crisis and jeopardize attempts to secure real, long lasting democratic government in the future. The West is better off being accused of inconsistency than fighting a war that can’t be won.