The Problem With Intervening in Syria


The brave, non-violent Syrian challenge to a brutal dictatorship emerged as part of the Arab risings across the region. But that short Syrian spring of 2011 has long since morphed into an escalation of militarization and death. The International Committee of the Red Cross acknowledged what many already recognized: Syria is immersed in full-scale civil war. As is true in every civil war, civilian casualties are horrific and rising.

Certainly the regime has carried out brutal acts against civilians, including war crimes. The armed opposition is also responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians. Indications are growing of outside terrorist forces operating in Syria as well.

Of course the normal human reaction is “we’ve got to do something!” But however dire the situation facing Syrian civilians, the likelihood that any outside military attacks would actually help the situation is very remote. Despite defections, Syria’s military, especially its air force, remains one of the strongest in the Arab world, and direct outside military involvement, especially by the United States, NATO, or other longstanding opponents of Syria would inevitably mean even greater carnage. U.S./NATO military intervention didn’t bring stability, democracy, or security to Libya, and it certainly is not going to do so in Syria.

Syria’s war is erupting in a region still seething in the aftermath of the U.S. war in Iraq and the sectarian legacies it left behind. The fighting is also now taking on an increasingly sectarian form – and the danger is rising of Syria becoming the center of an expanded regional war pitting Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Shi’a-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq.

Iran is the most important reason for U.S. interest in Syria. With continuing U.S.-EU sanctions on Iran, and Israeli threats of military attack, Syria remains a tempting proxy target. Damascus’s longstanding economic, political, and military ties with Tehran mean that efforts to undermine Syria are widely understood to be at least partly aimed at undermining Iran.

Certainly the United States, the EU, and the U.S.-backed Arab monarchies would prefer a more anti-Iranian, less resistance-oriented government in Syria, which borders key countries of U.S. interest including Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey. They would also prefer a less repressive government, since brutality brings protesters out into the streets, threatening instability.

But as has virtually always been the case, a U.S. decision to send fighter-jets or bombers or even ground troops to Syria, won’t be because Washington is suddenly worried about Syrian civilians. The Assad regime has brutalized civilians for years, but it has been way too useful for Washington to worry about such things. Damascus accepted U.S. detainees for interrogation and torture in the so-called “global war on terror,” it sent warplanes to join the U.S. Gulf War coalition attacking Iraq in 1991, it kept the occupied Golan Heights and the Israeli border largely pacified… and human rights violations were never a problem for the United States. As State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland admitted, “we are not always consistent.”

Whatever our humanitarian concerns might be, real decisions about direct military intervention will be made with little regard for Syrian civilians, Syrian civil society, or Syria’s national survival – all of which will suffer consequences that could last a generation or more. A U.S./NATO air war against Syria would likely not end like Libya’s – with no western casualties and a quick exit. Given Syria’s military, especially air capacity, it will look far more like Iraq than Libya.

Diplomacy is the only way this war will be ended.  Accountability for war crimes, whether in national or international jurisdictions, is crucial – but stopping the current escalation of war must come first.

The UN may be able to facilitate that process. The UN observer mission has been a political football, with the United States demanding the Security Council vote under Chapter VII, setting the stage for military intervention. Russia, determined to protect its naval base on the Syrian coast, rejected Chapter VII.  A compromise allowed a 30-day extension, but the real goal should be expansion of both the deployment and its mandate, from observation alone to attempts at political negotiation.

The head of the UN observer mission, Norwegian General Robert Mood, described his team’s success in some areas “to facilitate local dialogues between the parties as they seek to find a step by step way to build confidence and stop the negative spiral of violence. …We observe a significant reduction of violence and growing confidence in a possible step by step approach to stop the violence….[T]he political dialogue has to be brought inside Syria …Through that dialogue, and lifting it to the national level, we will then achieve a cessation of violence.”

That kind of bottom-up ceasefire effort, moving from the local to the national level, may offer the best chance to re-engage the non-violent core of the Syrian uprising and those opposition forces inside who are prepared to negotiate, bringing some hope that the UN team on the ground may be able to bring about what the Security Council has so far failed to achieve – a real ceasefire. Then the work to achieve the Syrian Spring’s goals of democracy and human rights may have a chance.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

This column is distributed by Other Words.


December 01, 2015
John Wight
From Iraq to Syria: Repeating a Debacle
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: the Left Takes Charge
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Revenge? The Fight for the Boarder
Sami Al-Arian
My Ordeal: One of America’s Many Political Trials Since 9/11
Bilal El-Amine
The Hard Truth About Daesh and How to Fight It
Pete Dolack
Solidarity Instead of Hierarchy as “Common Sense”
Dan Glazebrook
Rhodes Must Fall: Decolonizing Education
Colin Todhunter
Big Oil, TTIP and the Scramble for Europe
Eric Draitser
Terror in Mali: An Attack on China and Russia?
Gilbert Mercier
Will Turkey Be Kicked Out of NATO?
Linn Washington Jr.
Torture and Other Abuses Make Turkey as American as Apple Pie
Randy Shaw
Krugman is Wrong on Gentrification
Raouf Halaby
Time to Speak Out Against Censorship
November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Uri Avnery
There is No Such Thing as International Terrorism
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Patrick Cockburn
Nasty Surprises: the Problem With Bombing ISIS
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Bill Blunden
Glenn Greenwald Stands by the Official Narrative
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Karen Lee Wald
Inside the Colombia Peace Deal
Geoff Dutton
War in Our Time
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!