“It would need a savant to work out the geopolitical implications of a post-Assad Syria”

Is intervention humanitarian?

At the risk of focusing too much on one topic, I want to bring up two great articles that were published over at RUSI debating a potential intervention in Syria. David Roberts argues against intervention (and donates the title of this post) while Michael Stephens offers some support for the idea. I align myself solidly in Roberts’ camp and find the various alternatives he offers to be intriguing. Stephens offers a far more intelligent argument for intervention than what we saw yesterday, but still makes the same fundamental error by conflating political and humanitarian motives for intervention.

After making some arguments against intervention (read his article for more,) Roberts offers some viable alternatives to intervention, including the use of energy supplies by Arab states as a means of persuasion as well as “the darker side of diplomacy.” That, for Roberts, putting an end to the killing is a priority (along with concern of the unknown that would follow Assad) “there may be room for a grand bargain” that would keep Assad in power, but end the killing. Such a move, of course, would be sacrificing the political for the humanitarian.

Stephens, on the other hand, speaks of the humanitarian and political motives as inseparable. For him, the best option would be to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the means to fight a guerrilla war against the state: “if the West agrees Assad should be removed, as has been stated now on numerous occasions. Then it follows that, given Assad’s continued intransigence and use of force to extinguish the rebellion militarily, that Western powers not assisting the FSA would be  working against their stated goal of removing Assad from power.” Such a quasi-intervention, however, would inevitably prolong the civil war. Guerrilla wars are wars of attrition; while it is probable that such a tactic would eventually lead to the fall of Assad, it would allow the regime more time to continue killing Syrians.

This is exactly where we find the fault line between political motives and humanitarian motives: to remove Assad or to stop the killing. It is an impossible situation, to be sure. The only way to truly reconcile these two motives is undesirable and politically impossible: direct, large scale intervention to crush Assad’s regime immediately. Yet even here, the post-Assad situation – particularly if he was removed by a foreign power – would resemble post-Saddam Iraq. There would likely be post-war violence, violent religious disputes, revenge killings, and – if there was a sustained foreign presence, potential insurgencies. Inevitably, many more Syrians would be killed after such an intervention.

The best option, then, is to find the best balance between morals, political goals, and national interests. In the case of Syria, these factors best align through the use of non-military methods to pressure Syria and its backers while looking for an ugly deal to be made with Assad. Energy resources can easily be used to pressure regimes through both stick and carrot means. The experiences in regime change throughout the Middle East – Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya… – while all unique in many ways, show that the political goal of removing a dictator more often than not creates a humanitarian crisis. The chance of this happening in Syria is greater than elsewhere due to the demographic complexities of the country. There is no doubt in my mind that Assad and his regime are evil and must, at some point, lose power. However, intervening in Syria now – either directly, through military intervention, or indirectly, by arming the FSA, would only prolong and deepen the  humanitarian problems in Syria.

Photo from Power and Justice; h/t to The Gulf Blog

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