The narrative around foreign intervention in Syria veers more towards the hysterical than the rational. Furthermore, it seems that those who decry foreign intervention in Syria the most are either unwilling or unable to detect nuances in such involvements. This hesitance might be partially explained by memories of the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003, but this line of argument can only go so far.
Only recently, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Muath al-Khatib, flatly rejected any foreign intervention in the country, and then highlighted what it is that the rebels needed. Clearly there appears to be different interpretations of what constitutes foreign intervention, as well as the motives behind it. There are two key assumptions that form the basis of the narrative opposed to foreign intervention at any cost: firstly, that more involvement will increase the bloodshed; and secondly, that only a political solution can resolve the crisis in Syria. Both of these assumptions are erroneous, and in fact supporting them will have the exact opposite effect.
With regards to foreign intervention, there are two key questions that must be addressed. Firstly, is it right? And if so, what shape should it take? The international state system is rightly geared towards respecting the national sovereignty of key actors. However, historical precedent shows us that in some instances, a duty to act has been the right thing to do. Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Sierra Leone have all been such models, and while these precedents were far from perfect, few would argue that the international community should never have gotten involved in those countries at all, especially not the people who had witnessed the massacres there. Still, the Iraq invasion of 2003 continues to cast its long shadow on such endeavors in spite of the success of the Libyan model, and nowhere is it more poignant than with Syria today. But to let Iraq cloud our judgement over what must be done in Syria would be a serious mistake.
The existing regime in Syria, the regional context 10 years later, and the existence of a popular revolution all make the comparison an inaccurate one. Nothing illustrates this difference more clearly than the contrast between pictures of a statue of Saddam toppled by U.S. soldiers in 2003, and that of Hafez al-Assad, toppled in 2013 in Raqqa by Syrians alone.
Secondly, there is the question of the nature of this foreign intervention. Contrary to the popular narrative that such involvement would require massive bombardment of civilian areas or the advance of American tank divisions into the country, the foreign involvement requested by the Syrian opposition has been consistent and clear: some form of no-fly zone, weapons and financial assistance.
This is a far cry from the simplistic populist narrative that seems more concerned with NATO killing Syrians accidentally than Bashar al-Assad killing them intentionally. This narrative, propagated enthusiastically by those on the political left and self-proclaimed anti-imperialists, portrays any foreign assistance to the rebels as evidence of some proxy war against the regime and a prelude to more bloodshed. It is inconceivable, in their narrative, that Syrians would seek help from anybody to help defend themselves against Assad’s army, or that the regime is regularly inflicting a death toll on Syrians that now exceeds that of Iraq during its worst days. The foreign intervention that is already taking place in Syria through Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, is conveniently ignored or minimized.
Then there is the complete disparity in abilities between the rebel factions and the regime. The regime has, and uses, Scud missiles and an air force while the rebels do not. Furthermore, the regime’s strategy appears to have shifted recently towards bombarding civilian areas they have been pushed out of, which is a move that is of little military value and seems intended solely for the purpose of collective punishment and inflicting mass terror on Syrian civilians. Calls for arms embargoes and preventing foreign intervention will not stop Assad and only deny Syrians the means to defend themselves. As long as his regime can strike indiscriminately and with impunity, then the bloodshed will be set to increase.
This brings us to the issue of political negotiations, touted as the only possible solution to Syria’s crisis.
The non-argument of political negotiation with the regime, something that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has recently reiterated, is a dead end, and there are a number of reasons why this is so. Firstly we need to pick apart what Assad and his allies mean when referring to political negotiations.
Upon closer examination of such statements, we find a divergence in the discourse that can initially confuse the observer. There are in fact two tracks to the narrative of political dialogue: one promoted by the regime, and the other by its international backers. On one track, the regime insists it is ready for dialogue, but when one looks further into their statements, it quickly becomes apparent that this readiness is limited only to the cultivated political opposition movements that it approves of.
On the other track, which is promoted by Assad’s international allies, political dialogue is used to refer to negotiations with countries that are supporting Syria’s rebels, notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the West. There is some acknowledgment of the Syrian National Coalition, particularly from Russia, but examples of political dialogue are still limited to those conversations the regime has had with itself. Both of these interpretations of political negotiation are nonstarters, and both of them deliberately sideline and ignore the Syrian opposition groups that have coalesced since the start of the revolution. Were it not for the inconsistent and inaccurate nature of these calls to dialogue, then one might have taken them seriously.
Furthermore, the increasing insistence of these parties on what some commentators refer to as the “Geneva” track of initial discussions appears to have less to do with trying to end the bloodshed, and more with buying time for the regime. This is because, in spite of Assad repeatedly insisting that the situation is desperate but not serious, it is clear that he is now on the back foot. The north of the country now lies mostly in rebel hands, while in the south, Deraa looks like it is about to fall. It is therefore no coincidence that Assad has now pulled some of his best divisions from the borders with Israel to defend Damascus which will, should he lose Deraa, become the next front line.
To call for a political settlement at this time, and with the regime escalating its indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population out of desperation, looks less like a rational decision by people intent on avoiding bloodshed, and more like an attempt at appeasement. In effect, Assad’s allies are calling for a hostage negotiation, which in turn, only becomes an option if they succeed in choking off foreign assistance to the rebels, thereby turning the Syrian people into victims. The logic is as perverse as it is convoluted.