Given the seemingly conclusive evidence that the Assad regime was behind the recent chemical weapons attack, there is a persuasive argument for humanitarian intervention. The flagrant disregard for the rules of war demonstrates the regime’s willingness to use any means to achieve their end, and the central ethos of any authoritarian government: that survival of the regime is supreme. However, prior to the recent attack, estimates suggested that over 100,000 people had died in the course of the war, which began in 2011. This means that a very small percentage of the deaths have been caused by chemical weapons. So why is there talk of an intervention only now, and never earlier on in the war? Whilst a chemical attack on such a scale is unspeakably horrific, it is strange to think that the world would only react now, particularly as this has been a conflict littered with atrocities since its inception. Moreover, the relatives of the deceased would not differentiate their grief in terms of deaths by gun or by toxic gas.
The real impetus behind the push for intervention seems to be President Obama’s warning that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would constitute the crossing of a ‘red -line’. Obama has been understandably hesitant to put ‘boots on the ground’ anywhere during his Presidency, cautious not to replicate the pitfalls of his predecessor, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, with his ‘red-line’ comment, he has seemingly backed himself into a corner. Assad, as ruthless and cruel as he may be portrayed on the international stage, has proven himself a savvy political operative. By releasing very small chemical weapons attacks on various occasions, he sought to gradually undermine Obama’s statement, given the President’s reluctance to get involved. In short, he called the Americans’ bluff.
Then, almost a year to the day after the redline was drawn, the major chemical attack occurred. The logical conclusion to draw is that Assad is seeking to question the legitimacy of America and its desire to be seen as the upholders of global standards of justice. As such, an intervention on the part of the United States would be as much about preserving its own credibility in the region as it would be about protecting innocent civilians.
Recently, a potentially significant diplomatic development occurred when US Secretary of State John Kerry made a seemingly innocuous comment. Asked what Syria could do to prevent an intervention, he remarked, almost sarcastically, that they could turn in all of their chemical weapons – before adding that it would never happen. Surprisingly, both Russia and Syria seized upon the comment, and now an agreement is in place to remove the chemical weapons. Whilst this is promising, it is important not to rush to deem this event as a game-changer. In theory, it is a positive move forward, however in the context of a raging war, it is difficult to see how inspectors could confidently say that they have found and removed all of Assad’s vast cache of chemical weapons. Moreover, the deal does not end the conflict because it will not stop Assad from using similarly devastating ‘conventional’ weaponry. Still, it is the first significant international move on the crisis, so any development, even minor, should be gladly accepted, albeit within perspective.
In spite of the above agreement, the possibility of intervention remains, if for example, the deal falls through. As such, it is important to ask what may be the outcome of an intervention. Should the intervention proceed, it will be a small-scale surgical attack, targeting regime strongholds and artillery. At best, it tips the scales of the war in favour of the rebels, and at worst, it delays the inevitable victory for the regime. If that is the case and Assad maintains power, the winners would include Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group in Lebanon receiving support from Syria and currently fighting on the regime side, and Iran which has an interest in the status quo in Syria. Russia also supports the regime, and has some national interests invested there. Further, the Alawi minority to which Assad belongs would probably maintain its dominance in Syria. The losers from Assad staying in power would be everyone else.
Alternatively, the opposition could overthrow the regime. The clear benefit of losing a vicious dictator is tempered by indications that many of the rebel opposition groups have been infiltrated by hard-line Islamists who may themselves push radical policy upon the downfall of the current regime. Herein lies the greatest unknown: if Assad remains, the world has a brutal dictator it must deal with, but that, at least, is a known quantity. The risk if the rebels assume power is that we simply do not know who they are. Having said that, it must be conceded that they are unlikely to be much worse than the current regime.
The only way to create lasting change would be to fundamentally alter the nature of the country, a process that would take generations. Moreover, change would only be viewed as legitimate by locals if led by locals. The idea that democracy can be installed in a country which lacks the institutions for it to function has been thoroughly refuted in Iraq. Furthermore, the Syrian war is about more than removing an illegitimate government; it harks back to tribal tensions, and includes a myriad of other local grievances. To suggest that these could be fixed by intervention from an external force, who, rightly or wrongly, garners little respect when mentioned in the region, is folly. This is a Syrian conflict – a regional conflict – and as such the people would only deem a solution as genuine if it was led by the people who have grown up within the circumstances. Fancy Syria telling us how to handle a crisis; we would not take kindly to it. So why expect they would listen to us?
However the war ends, Syria seems destined for a leader hostile to Western interests and resistant to democracy and the needs of the people. Moreover, if the West/United States did intervene, it would be spun as a negative, given the depth of disdain for the West in the region. If the West intervenes but Assad still wins, it would be criticised for doing too little, too late. If the West intervenes and causes regime change, it could mean hard-line Islamists take power, whose default position is strongly anti-West. If the West remains clear of the conflict, it would be criticised for sitting idly by as Syria implodes. It is a tragic, no-win situation.
The mounting death toll certainly adds weight to the argument for getting involved and trying to stop the bloodshed. But the reality is that no country is willing to invest the manpower required to actually change the scene on the ground, because it is just too risky a venture. As such, any involvement on the part of the West would have limited lasting effect. This is a situation where the world must continue to exhaust all diplomatic options, of which some still exist. This should include turning over the chemical weapons to Russia and the United States. It may also include imposing the harshest economic sanctions possible in an attempt to isolate Assad. One thing, though, is clear: military intervention is not the answer.