Five misconceptions about intervention in Syria

By Alex Bryan

Since reports of a chemical weapons attack launched in Syria by the Assad regime began circulating a week or so ago, debate has intensified over how the West should respond to such a barbarous act which typifies the opportunism and disregard for human rights at the heart of the Syrian state. Some have called for restraint; more have called for action in some form or another, be it humanitarian action, targeted missile strikes or more direct methods of intervention. The sheer scale of the global conversation about how to solve the crisis in Syria by its very nature means that facts are distorted, straw men are constructed and taken apart and the very topic of conversation at times becomes lost amidst the clutter. Here then is a handy guide to a few important misconceptions, mistakes or misplaced concerns the commentariat have expressed about the potential options the West has in facing down Assad.

Misconception 1 – The West is not currently intervening in Syria

As we are talking about foreign policy misconceptions, there seem few places more fitting to start than Tony Blair’s piece in the Times yesterday. Blair notes that other powers are intervening right now, and that they are not terrified by the prospect of intervention. Blair is right; Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others are intervening in the conflict as we speak. However, he is wrong to imply that the West is not. Intervention, as Blair knows, is a broad term which can cover a whole host of options, military or non-military. It is clear that the UK is engaging with the conflict, as is the U.S.; the fact we have not bombed Syria does not mean we are ‘wringing our hands’ on the sidelines.

Misconception 2 – That the West is chiefly concerned with morals in Syria

Commentators have tended to be fundamentally divided on how they suggest we view Syria. Some, such as Blair, view the need for intervention as one which is essentially based on Western interests and the need for long term stability in the Middle-East. Others view it as a moral necessity now that chemical weapons are involved, saying that chemical weapons provide an imperative, that using them breaches a fundamental principle of human dignity and that we must act to ensure this does not happen again. In a sense both are right. However, the second view is clearly normative rather than descriptive; one can argue that we should intervene on moral grounds, but it is a different thing to say that is why we will intervene. The moral argument is far more complicated than is generally accepted, and involves swallowing a whole host of difficult implications. For example, if chemical weapons represent a moral line, where does this leave the thousands killed using guns or sticks or knives or bombs in Syria? Is this morally defensible? Are their deaths any less worthy of our moral concern? Our concern with chemical weapons is not entirely moral; it also involves a national security element. Preventing the flow of chemical weapons into the hands of non-state actors – including the Syrian rebels – is a priority for the West in defending itself against possible future terrorist attacks. There is a legitimate concern against the use of chemical weapons, but it is not entirely moral. If it were, intervention would be much less likely.

Misconception 3 – That international military intervention without a UN mandate is still legitimate on humanitarian grounds

On Conservative Home Robert Halfon MP argues that the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine essentially grants a mandate to any country. This is a misunderstanding of the doctrine, which could be very dangerous. More fundamentally however, Halfon misunderstands what R2P is. It is not a set of guidelines or rules, but an emerging norm. The reason it is emerging is because it is still highly controversial and far from perfect, as the previous attempts to implement the doctrine have shown. So, although we can appeal to R2P in making a case to the UN to intervene (or allow an intervention), it does not guarantee the legal certainty that Halfon appears to claim it does. Halfon also seems to misunderstand what R2P allows the international community to do. When the UN talks about the ‘international community’ with regards to R2P, what it means it ‘the international community represented by the Security Council’. So R2P gets us no closer to a legitimate response; it would still be blocked in the Security Council by Russia and China, both pro-Assad and anti-R2P.

Misconception 4- We should not aid the rebels because of the Muslim Brotherhood

This idea is fairly prevalent among those keen not to get involved, such as Sir Andrew Green. Conversely, fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is also the reason Tony Blair gives for supporting the military against the democratically elected government in Egypt. While Green and Blair both cite the Brotherhood to support differing opinions, they both demonstrate similarly strange approaches to foreign policy. Green might be right that if the Assad regime topples, the Muslim Brotherhood will gain power, attempt to implement Sharia and an Islamic state and rule Syria for a number of years. Of course he acknowledges the complexity of the issue, but also implies, rather strikingly, that the collapse of the regime would launch the Syrian Brotherhood into mainstream politics. However, the Syrian Brotherhood is very different to the central, more powerful Egyptian Brotherhood. Alison Pargeter notes the differences in her excellent book The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition To Power, and even if the relative liberalism of the Syrian Brotherhood is no more, it should still be clear that judging the Syrian Brotherhood on the actions of its Egyptian counterparts is a mistake. Perhaps more pertinently, we cannot claim with any certainty what might happen if Assad were to fall. The only certainty we have is that for as long as he stays in power, Syria will be drenched in blood.

Misconception 5 – The actions of the West will decide the future of the conflict and the long-term future of Syria

The general discussion in the West in the last week has – perhaps naturally – focussed on the options at our disposal in changing the course of the conflict. In discussing the options, many have rested on an assumption which, if once true, is no longer valid. We cannot assume, with the political revitalisation of Russia under Putin, China’s inevitable rise and the increasing assertiveness of the Arab world, that Western actions will have a huge effect in the long term. The age of U.S. unipolarity is dying if not dead, and we in the West must face up to this fact. We are no longer omnipotent. Intervention in Syria might have a short term effect, but the long term future of Syria will be more determined by the geopolitical forces of the Middle-East than the wishes of the United States. Our ambitions must, then, be limited to what is possible. Our approach to Syria must mirror this uncertainty; however the West ends up intervening, it will not mark the end of this damned tale.