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Syria: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

by Samir Chopra

Aug 27, 2013 | Foreign Policy


(Source: ABC News)

The latest reports of the use of chemical weapons in Syria—by Assad’s regime against civilians—render a consideration of the arguments for intervention in Syria ever more urgent, especially as part of the existent case against intervention has rested on a skeptical assessment of previous reports of the use of chemical weapons. In particular, Andrew Meyer has suggested in the Spectator that Syria provides a moral, pragmatic and progressive case for the exertion of American military power overseas.

There might be a moral case for U.S. intervention in Syria but it’s far from clear whether such an intervention is militarily, economically, or politically feasible.

Meyer dismisses comparisons with Iraq, suggesting ground realities, especially in the identities of the groups engaged in conflict, are sufficiently different to warrant a little less squeamishness about getting involved; there is, for instance, more local, popular support for American intervention. Meyer also points out that whereas American intervention in Iraq created a power vacuum, in Syria, its non-intervention is likely to create one, and more broadly, Assad’s success in using force to quell a popular uprising creates a bad precedent all over the Arab world. The case against intervention is, unsurprisingly, a familiar one that cannot but scream “quagmire” from every line. As David Bromwich notes, getting tangled up in Syria entails the distinct possibility of becoming embroiled in a catfight taking place between Qatar and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran and the Hezbollah on the other.

It is also unclear what the extent of American military intervention in Syria would be. Even though Kosovo suggests that air power can succeed in making a strategic and tactical difference to ground realities, the history of warfare suggests otherwise: real, durable change will only happen when American troops are on the ground. This kind of involvement is likely to be expensive and possibly deeply unpopular in a nation whose budgets have already been crippled by two wars.

And if American troops do establish a ground presence, there is no guarantee that they will not again, just like in Iraq, become targets in yet another killing ground, inviting active participation by anti-American forces from elsewhere. The precise reason that the U.S. occupies its special role as policeman of the world is the one that should give it the most pause: when the U.S. goes to play, it invites not just spectators but participants as well.

Bromwich’s warning about the possible involvement of Iran and the Hezbollah in an expanded conflict is worth reiterating here. An enduring American military presence in the Middle East is not welcome to most nations in that region and has the potential to evoke an actively hostile response.

Syria’s situation—especially if reports of the use of chemical weapons are true—is, of course, a classical scenario calling for evaluation of the legal and moral argument for military intervention in a sovereign nation’s affairs. As Norman Geras points out, the legal foundations for such action can be found in both “international law and…the doctrine of A Responsibility to Protect, underwritten by the U.N.” Geras suggests these notions not only grant potential interveners the right to intervene, they impose a duty to do so, and indeed, such actions may be rightfully considered a form of reprisal against the offending party.

But Geras sounds a note of caution too, in suggesting that the chances of success of the intervention need to be assessed with some care. A failed intervention might be worse than none at all. Or consider that an improperly calibrated intervention—a slow moving, mild interjection of military force, for instance—might prompt Assad to attack with even greater force, triggering even greater atrocities, reckoning that his best chances of survival and rendering the outcome of the war a fait accompli lie in quelling the rebel forces as quickly as possible.

These considerations should prompt us to ask what a military intervention is supposed to accomplish. Is it committed to the military victory and political success of the rebel forces? Will it be considered a success if chemical weapon attacks cease and conventional warfare resumes? Is it to be so finely calibrated that Assad’s forces will be sufficiently weakened to allow the rebels to succeed on their own? (And then do what they wish with their country?) It is not unreasonable, too, to doubt the resilience of the American presence: intervention in Syria will not be brief, and there will be much cleaning up and rearrangement to do. Will the U.S. commit manpower and materiel for the long run?

A history lesson from another part of the world—from an intervention sometimes described as a just and successful one—might be instructive. In 1971, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) was born after the Indian Army—with the aid of the local Liberation Army (Mukti Bahini)—intervened to halt a genocidal reprisal conducted by the West Pakistan Army against the Bengali secessionist movement. After a brief war, the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca, a Bangladeshi government came to power, and soon, after some assistance with post-war administration, the Indian Army left.

It is not clear U.S. policy makers can anticipate such a “straightforward” resolution of the current Syrian crisis. The nature of its military interventions overseas has always been different. There might be a moral case for intervention in Syria, but is still not clear whether the kind of intervention called for will be militarily, economically, or politically feasible.


Samir Chopra is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College. His most recent book is Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He blogs at samirchopra.com.


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