Time to intervene in Syria?

With 60,000 dead and 250 more dying each day, has the time come for foreign action?

Time to bomb Syria?

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Late last month, U.S. President Barack Obama stood before a shivering but enthusiastic crowd gathered on Washington’s National Mall to hear him lay out his vision for his final term in office. America was emerging from a dark period of struggle and conflict, he told them in his inauguration address. “A decade of war is ending.”

Had they lived long enough, this might have come as news to the 210 people who died in Syria that day—a fraction of the approximately 60,000 who have perished since an uprising began against dictator Bashar al-Assad almost two years ago.

The dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, included 15 children and at least 68 civilians—one of whom was tortured to death by the regime. The toll has continued apace. “Every single day has become a fixed price: 250 casualties,” says Hassan Hachimi, a Syrian-Canadian member of the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella coalition of opposition groups.

And yet even after the United States joined other NATO member states, including Canada, to stop a far less bloody conflict in Libya, the carnage continues unabated in Syria. And President Obama describes a world he wished existed, rather than the one that does.

The arguments for Western intervention in Syria are both humanitarian and strategic. Syria today is a tragedy. In addition to the dead, hundreds of thousands have fled, and another two million—of a total population of just 20 million—are internally displaced. Fighting rages throughout the country, including on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. Government forces, unable to hold territory, use air strikes and artillery to pummel their own cities. Civilians have little protection.

“Government forces have committed systematic human rights and humanitarian violations, in some cases amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” says Nadim Houry, a deputy director at Human Rights Watch, an NGO whose researchers have documented abuses in the conflict in detail.

Washington is already providing communications equipment to Syria’s opposition. The case for escalating this assistance to measures that might include arming and training rebels or even air strikes is less altruistic but, according to its proponents, also compelling.

Syria under Assad is one of Iran’s most important allies, providing Tehran easy access to the Mediterranean, and to Lebanon and the Hezbollah militant group that thrives there—essentially giving Iran an unofficial border with Israel. But Syria is not a natural Iranian partner. Though ethnically and religiously diverse, its people are predominantly Sunni Muslims, unlike the Shia Muslims of Iran. Removing the Assad regime likely ends Syrian loyalty to Iran’s ayatollahs.

There’s now “an opening” Washington “can take advantage of,” says Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut. “This is a regime that has always been a thorn in your side, that is allied to Iran and Hezbollah, who have done a lot of damage to American interests in the region.”

Syria’s key location, as well as a relatively advanced arsenal that reportedly includes chemical weapons, mean the consequences of the state’s collapse from prolonged civil war are potentially severe. Syria is not a country whose misery and chaos can be easily contained. Expediting Assad’s downfall would lessen the costs of rebuilding Syria once he is gone, says Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as a security adviser to former president George W. Bush. “The situation continues to get worse and worse inside Syria. It makes putting the pieces together that much harder.”

None of these arguments would come as a revelation to Barack Obama. In fact, it has emerged that departing defence secretary Leon Panetta, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-CIA director David Petraeus and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton all endorsed a plan last summer to arm the Syrian opposition. Obama rejected it.

Reasons not to intervene in Syria often revolve around the nature of opposition rebels and the supposed strength of the Syrian military. But arguments about the capabilities of Syria’s air defences were dealt a blow last month when Israeli jets successfully struck deep inside the country—reportedly hitting a convoy of weapons bound for Lebanon—and returned home unscathed.

Concerns about Syria’s opposition persist. It is not united. And its ranks include extreme Islamists, some of whom share the same radical anti-Western philosophy as al-Qaeda. Prominent among them is Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a terrorist organization in December by the United States. Foreign fighters are also joining the struggle.

Opponents of intervention worry that by backing Syria’s opposition the West may inadvertently help jihadists take control of the country. Mohamad Khatib, part of the opposition Syrian National Council, says these fears are overblown. “The Syrians had their revolution to get rid of a dictatorship. They don’t have room for an Islamic state after that.”

Nevertheless, reports from inside Syria suggest al-Nusra is becoming more powerful, allegedly receiving arms and money from networks in the Gulf. That its emerging strength is cited as a reason not to intervene frustrates those who believe radical Islamists in Syria have profited from the West’s refusal to act.

“It was to a large degree a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Jeffrey White, a defence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who previously worked in America’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Having declined to arm moderate factions in the opposition, the West gave jihadists space to grow, and their presence among the rebels now justifies continued inaction.

But there have been hints lately that American policy may finally be about to change. Last week Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the United States is reconsidering its options regarding Syria.“This is a new administration now, the President’s second term,” he said at a press conference alongside Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “I’m a new secretary of state, and we’re going forward from this point.”

Until now, the Obama administration’s approach to crises in the Middle East has been restrained; stung by Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has tried to avoid further entangling America in the region. On Syria, this has resulted in paralysis, according to Young. “Whenever the Americans do anything, they want to see the endgame from the beginning,” he adds. “They want everything to be perfect before they intervene. Syria is a messy place, and it’s not going to be black and white.”

And yet what America might accomplish now is uncertain. After two years of slaughter, many Syrians feel abandoned by the West. Other countries and forces—from Iran to Qatar to foreign jihadists—have tried to shape the outcome of the Syrian war while Western nations watched from the sidelines.

Hachimi, among many other Syrians, still hopes the outside world will help drive the “criminal” Assad from power. Syrians will fight on alone, he says, and they’ll succeed. “But it will take longer.”




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Time to intervene in Syria?

  1. “Hachimi, among many other Syrians, still hopes the outside world will help drive the “criminal” Assad from power.”

    Which Syrians? the ones that are helping the American NGOs? the Government? If Syrians wanted Assad gone they would already done so two years ago.

    “But there have been hints lately that American policy may finally be
    about to change. Last week Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the
    United States is reconsidering its options regarding Syria.“

    What makes you Michael Petrou say for sure that the that American policy may finally be
    about to change? Americans cant and arent going to support another intervention in Syria not after What happened in Libya.

    has the time come for foreign action?

    No it isn’t Syria should be left to be handled by Syrians America, Canada, Britain cant the World police force.

  2. Russia won’t permit another US attack on one of it’s few allies.

  3. We cannot and should not attempt to fix a part of the world that chooses not to be fixed.

    I am not referring just to Syria, though it is clearly the focus of this article.

    Rather, I am speaking of a significant part of the Middle East, South East Asia, Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Southern Russia, (Chetnya et al).

    i.e.Much, if not most, of the venue of Islam.

    Whether it is decaying , rising, angry, envious, stuck in another millenium or providing a new and ambitious course for mankind will be debated in depth and twisted beyond recognition without reasonable resolutions or proposals defined .

    No! It is not time to intervene in Syria or any other part of these societies we cannot understand and which do not respect us.
    Leave them alone to chart their own tomorrows and focus upon our own people, our own values and our own needs.
    i.e.
    Get out totally and stay out.

    • If only you greedy, penultimate hypocrites stayed out if our lands in the first place.

      d killing our people and supp

  4. No. Canada should exit this NATO monstrosity that has engineered more illegal wars under international law than any other organization. When will people learn that you CANNOT BUILD A COUNTRY WITH TANKS, BOMBS AND GUNS?

  5. Syrians will get rid of this monster by any means necessary. If the UN and international community doesn`t want to assist and prevent this current genocide, so be it. We will do it alone.

  6. And then of course there’s the whole awkward business of the UN Charter and international law.

  7. A pithy saying regarding the definition of insanity comes to mind.

  8. Very biased interpretation of events. The so called rebel fighter are also committing widespread human rights violations. Best solution is to prevent qatar and saudi from selling weapons and providing salaries for the rebels. I am disappointed in mcleans for being so biased.

  9. Noone feels abandoned by the west lol. If syrians wanted to overthrow assad they would have alteady done so. Plus many of the rebel fighters are not even syrians. There is proof that many are libyan, saudi…..

  10. oh yeah….we have intervene in Afghanistan and what happened so far? how about Somalia intervention? and so on. Please keep you hands away from Syria; Now when the foreign rebells are gettling less and less and the government in Syria is gaining on Ground, we want to repeat Mali ….. The West will intervene again …. but Syria is not Mali, and invervening in Syria can mean the death of Israel from the region; respectively, Price hikes in Canada and possible revolution.

  11. I am disappointed with Macleans for biased reporting that does not reflect true reality. Ignoring the current government of Syria that was serving the country for more than 30 years, is simply ignorance and again, Canada is displaying that it is following a European and Zionism Agendas and not the Canada of peace.

  12. NO!

    We have caused enough trouble in the ME….leave them alone to work out their own problems.

  13. Dear writer, your opening two paragraphs are nonsensical.

    You describe the leader of the US telling his own people that one of their own wars is now over. You then point out that there is still war happening in Syria. Implying, it would appear, that the US leader is confused or wrong.

    He very well could be, much of the time even, but in this case you’re the one who is most confused. Syria is not a part of the US. And whichever random conflict Mr. Obama is mumbling about, it’s not one with Syria.

    I know it is hard to believe, but the United States is actually not involved in every single issue that happens here on earth and in the heavens. Perhaps even more shattering to your eager-to-follow worldview—they shouldn’t be.

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