Syria: a choice of evils

Any lasting solution to the crisis is far likelier to be achieved by a negotiated ceasefire accompanied by concrete steps to address the humanitarian emergency

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

With two million refugees, 100,000 dead and 1,400 killed in a recent chemical warfare attack, there can be little doubt that some form of outside intervention in Syria is now warranted with urgency.

But it is far from clear what form this intervention should take, still less how it should be mandated.

Sadly, recent experience on the international stage makes both these questions hard to answer. One problem is that the Syrian situation has festered over the past two years, precisely because of a lack of international consensus on how to intervene. With Russia and China consistently vetoing UN sanctions against the Assad regime, what started out as a series of brutally repressed protests has been allowed to degenerate into a full-scale civil war in which there are no obvious 'sides' to choose.

Both government forces and rebel militias have been guilty of unspeakable atrocities since the outbreak of hostilities, making it very difficult to justify an intervention on purely ethical grounds. A much more complex problem concerns the fact that the war itself is underpinning hostilities in the historic schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which is quite simply beyond the ability of any outside intervention to heal.

But there is a deeper issue at stake in the question of whether or not to intervene. It concerns the legitimacy of unilateral action in the absence of any UN mandate. US president Obama's justification for such action is that a red line has been crossed, due to the horrific use of chemical weapons, allegedly by government forces.

This is no doubt an unacceptable use of force, and clearly constitutes a war crime. But even if it were proved beyond any reasonable doubt that Assad was responsible, it would remain debatable in the extreme whether the launching of a couple of cruise missiles from a submarine is the proper way to administer international justice that should really be meted by the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague (which, to complicate matters further, is not officially recognised by the US).

Moreover there is an issue of consistency here. This is hardly the first time that this same red line was crossed without any repercussions for the offender. Iraq's Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Kurdish insurgents in the 1980s, at a time when he also enjoyed the support of the USA in his war against Iran. There was no talk of intervention then; and when a decision was taken to topple Hussein's regime the reasons given were quite different.

Nor does it help that the USA itself was found to have likewise used a banned chemical agent - white phosphorus - during its occupation of Iraq in 2005. Indeed one could argue that the Iraq debacle as a whole has dented the credibility of US foreign interventions, making it harder for any unilateral action to enjoy widespread support.

Meanwhile, legitimate doubts have been cast on the motivations behind any possible US action. No doubt the official pretext will concern the alarming humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict, but overriding such humanitarian considerations are US interests in the region. As respected veteran journalist Robert Fisk has concluded, the ultimate target of any attack on Syria could well be Iran, with massive implications for stability in the Middle East.

Motivations apart, following the mess intervention left in Iraq people may legitimately ask, will foreign intervention leave Syria in a better or worse situation? It is not an easy question to answer because this time round there is no talk of 'regime change' or invasion. The aim of intervention seems to be that of weakening Assad just enough to prevent him from winning the war, but not enough to allow the rebels to win: an outcome which is understood to favour Syria's neighbour Israel, which may not be keen on seeing the rebels (which include an Islamic component) take power in Syria, nor to see Iran's only Arab ally emerge victorious.

As a result of these and other complications, the actual long-term objective of any military action against Syria remains unclear. It is by no means inconceivable that the outcome of any attack will be to protract the Syrian civil war even further.

Faced with such considerations, the case for direct military intervention in Syria begins to look shaky. One may well argue that preventing Assad from winning by weakening his military infrastructure is itself a worthwhile objective; but in the absence of any negotiations involving both rebels and the regime, the civil war will not end. In fact the opposite may well be true: an outside attack on Assad's forces could conceivably sabotage any form of negotiation between the two sides.

Ultimately any lasting solution to the crisis is far likelier to be achieved by a negotiated ceasefire accompanied by concrete steps to address the humanitarian emergency and possibly reinforced by peacekeepers on the ground, though these would have to be accepted by both sides.

This may well be an overly optimistic scenario, in view of Russia's obstructionism on any attempt to put diplomatic pressure on Assad. But while diplomatic solutions remain possible, it would be foolhardy to choose a military 'solution' instead.


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Luke Camilleri
Pastizzi N Bucks ;)