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Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012, 4:47 pm

Debating Intervention in Syria

By Rebecca Burns

Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, speaking during a press conference on January 10.
(Photo by MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images)

In his first public address in six months, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed today to respond to the country’s opposition with an “iron fist.” In a speech at the University of Damascus, Assad referred to the pro-democracy demonstrations that began in March as “terrorism” and said that security forces would soon restore order.

This eerie pledge comes as the Syrian opposition appears fragmented on the question of foreign intervention, with the mostly exiled Syrian National Council (SNC) calling for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone to protect civilians.

The SNC has argued the situation in Syria is comparable to that in Libya, and one of its leaders told the Washington Times that Syrians would support similar NATO actions in their country.

While NATO has maintained thus far that it will not intervene in Syria, its actions in Libya have clearly set a precedent that are guiding debate over the international response to escalating violence in Syria.

Proponents of intervention are hoping that the apparent embrace of humanitarian principles in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya, will pave the way for a more robust response in Syria.

The U.N. estimates that the death toll in Syria has risen to 5,000, and opposition protestors have complained that the Arab League monitoring mission currently on the ground is merely “buying time” for the Syrian regime.

Critics of intervention, meanwhile, fear that NATO action in Libya has legitimized western efforts to control the outcome of popular uprisings.

As was the case with the Libyan opposition, the Syrian opposition is internally fragmented, with the smaller, diaspora-oriented Syrian National Council and the more centrist, Syria-based National Coordination Body each claiming to represent the mass of demonstrators. Last week, an accord intended to build consensus between the two groups on a path to democratic transition collapsed in part over the question of military intervention. Members of the SNC rejected the deal’s disavowal of  "any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country,” and some are also seeking a greater role for the Free Syrian Army. 

Calls for intervention have also been issued from the predictable corners of the U.S. foreign policy elite. On December 21, Foreign Policy Initiative (the reincarnation of Project for a New American Century, an influential proponent of the Iraq War) and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies sent an open letter to President Obama urging stronger action against Assad. The letter —signed by such notable neocons as William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and former Bush Undersecretary of Defence Douglas Feith—called for multi-lateral sanctions, direct contact with the SNC and “evaluation” of their leadership and membership, and the establishment of safe areas and no-go zones.

Meanwhile, according to the Cable, the National Security Council is preparing options and scenarios for assistance to the Syrian opposition, ranging from the appointment of a special coordinator to work with the Syrian opposition to establishment of a humanitarian coordinator.

Writing in the Guardian, Marwa Daoudy notes:

The long-term goal is clearly strategic: to tame Syria as a key regional player by seizing this moment of internal instability in order to shape the country's geopolitical links. At stake is the larger game currently played between a broad American-Saudi-Israeli coalition of interests and the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas triangle. The future of Syria also lies in the balance. . .The SNC's president, Burhan Ghalioun [in an interview with the Washington Post], appears to have played into this game, by committing to sever relations with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas if offered a future political position.

Daoudy, a lecturer in the Middle East Centre at University of Oxford, argues powerfully against military intervention but offers little in the way of alternative means of support—other than that demonstrators embrace the spirit of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Perhaps the most troubling precedent set by NATO’s actions in Libya is the narrowing of the terms of debate. Intervention by foreign military powers is now glossed as the most meaningful form of assistance to pro-democracy movements, and those rightfully skeptical of its motives or efficacy are left arguing for inaction.

What other options exist? Academics such as Robert Johansen have argued that Syria’s leaders should be referred to the International Criminal Court. In a post called, “13 Ways to Support the Syrian Opposition Right Now,” Erica Chenoweth, author of Why Civil Resistance Works, recommends such measures as training the opposition in crowd-sourcing technology, publicizing nonviolent successes and encouraging the diaspora and business community to develop a fund to encourage and support more substantial strike actions.

As the Arab League monitoring mission—currently set to end up January 19—draws to a close with few results likely, the intervention debate may intensify. It will be important to remember that, outside of this debate, there is a range of non-military means to support and show solidarity with the besieged Syrian opposition.

 

 

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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