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Syria: would intervention work?

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Robin Lustig | 16:21 UK time, Friday, 2 March 2012

Here's a question for you to ponder over the weekend: if international military forces were to intervene in Syria, how likely do you think it is that they would be able to create a sustainable solution to the crisis?

The question was asked in an interview this week by the NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen -- and I think it's a good one.

Gideon Rachman, in a thoughtful column in the Financial Times, put it this way: "Is it possible that, in intervening to stop one evil, we will create a greater evil in the future?"

If you or I had been trapped in the hell that was Homs over the past month, I'm sure we would have been begging for foreign intervention, anything to bring to an end a bombardment that has killed countless innocent people, as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of anti-Assad fighters.

But if you or I were an Iraqi who had lived through the hell that followed the US-led invasion of 2003, we may well have cursed the foreign forces that unleashed such horror on our country. The dilemma faced by policy-makers is that stopping one evil does not necessarily protect us from future evils.

Back in 1999, at the height of the conflict in Kosovo, Tony Blair delivered a speech in Chicago in which he outlined five questions that he suggested need to be asked whenever international military intervention is being considered.

They were:

1. Are we sure of our case? (Blair commented: "War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress, but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.")

2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?

3. On the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?

4. Are we prepared for the long term?

5. Do we have national interests involved?

Syria is not Kosovo, nor is it Iraq or Libya. But if the aim of military intervention is to end the killing of civilians and enable the building of a stable, democratic state, well, let's just say the lessons from Kosovo, Iraq and Libya are far from clear.

As Gideon Rachman pointed out in his column, there is always a risk that by stepping in to prevent people dying, you end up being responsible for even more people dying.

So suppose you simply wanted to offer a basic level of protection to the people of Homs or other cities in Syria where citizens are at risk. How would you go about it? Send in an international ground force, perhaps made up of Saudi, Qatari and Turkish troops? To take on the full might of the Syrian army?

There's been talk of creating humanitarian corridors, safe havens, or buffer zones. But they would all need to be protected by military forces, and one of the lessons from the Balkans conflicts was that even limited interventions can quickly develop into something much more.

The assessment of the NATO secretary-general is that even if there were to be a UN mandate for military intervention (and there's precious little prospect of that in current circumstances), the mission would not have a high likelihood of success.

In other words, it would fail on the third of the Blair tests, even if all the others were satisfactorily answered.

None of this is meant to suggest that military intervention never works. It ended the killing in Bosnia, although it has failed so far to put in place a stable democracy there; ditto in Kosovo (although there is still violence, and countless unresolved issues); ditto in Sierra Leone and East Timor.

As far as Homs is concerned, it may be -- with the "tactical withdrawal" of the anti-Assad forces from the district of Baba Amr and the arrival of the Red Cross and Red Crescent -- that civilians will now at least be spared the constant fear of death by shelling or sniper fire.

What we don't yet know is whether the Syria uprising has reached a turning point: does the defeat of the rebels in Homs mean that government forces can now reassert control across the country, or will the rebels simply regroup and prepare for another stand elsewhere? The northern province of Idlib, close to the Turkish border, may well become the next flashpoint.


  • Comment number 1.

    The aim of this intervention is to weaken this of the seven governments targeted, including Syria and Iran (Gen. Wesley Clark, "Winning Modern Wars" pg 130). Humanitarianism is a false pretext for geopolitical intent.

    Thus, massive disinformation, arms and subversion will be intensified.

    Did anyone speak of intervention when Israel attacked Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, killing 1400 civilians?

  • Comment number 2.

    Intervention will not work, because any conceivable intervention can't work due to the location of the country and the substantial internal support for the current regime.

    Intervention will only make the plight of the people far far worse - terminally so for many.

    However, it is in our national interest to have a stable Middle East as the place is jam packed full with unstable leaderships who are almost completely devoid of any care for their own people, let alone those of their neighbours.

    Why on earth has anyone propped up theses regimes for so long? It can not be in the interests of any superpower or Nation to continue doing so. A complete arms embargo for the whole region. Plus the promotion of disarmament for all. Make them talk to each other! The militarisation of the region of the last sixty years has done absolutely no good to anyone! It is time to try another tack!

  • Comment number 3.



    Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad disputes your figures.

  • Comment number 4.

    #3 Scotch Git

    --Your somewhat deficient link does not mention Palestinian civilian deaths --a minor detail ?

  • Comment number 5.


    You are complaining about a link to your favourite Israeli newspaper?

    Next time I'll check out Der Spiegel first. Just for you. X

  • Comment number 6.

    These are not the 80s and Obama is not Reagan. Reagan sought opportunities to fund, arm & support opposition groups in communist-dominated countries.
    Obama and his foreign-policy team are ideologically committed to helping opposition movements working to overthrow so-called authoritarian governments in ME (but in reality, these governments are simply not to the liking of US exploitation).
    Like Reagan, Obama faces the same three obstacles that made effective implementation of the Reagan Doctrine impossible.
    1. an obstructive Congress - one that remains uninterested in letting the president engage US troops in civil wars waged by groups that viewed the US as a necessary evil (at best) and where the most likely outcome was a changing of the guard rather than a solution to violence and unrest. Obama has had some Republican support on the question of arming Syrian rebels, but he faced the same opposition with the Libyan situation that Reagan did with Central America, & he will encourage more Congressional opposition if he starts serious discussions about helping establish a humanitarian corridor in Syria.
    2. The public. American people have opposed most of the post–Cold War efforts to protect vulnerable populations when those efforts crossed what is often referred to as the “Mogadishu Line”: when humanitarian aid mutates into taking sides in ugly civil wars.
    3. Obama faces sad truth about the state of the opposition in Syria as in most of these situations: it’s a mess. Ironically, a key element of the Reagan Doctrine was that the existence of a well-organized opposition movement was a precondition for considering US support. Who knows what supporting any one of the many opposition groups in Syria would mean for Syria’s future?
    Did intervention work in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia...
    All this death & destruction for what?

  • Comment number 7.

    Scotch Git

    --You give too little credit to some --and far too much undeserved credit to others.



    History is not all that simple you wish it to be.

  • Comment number 8.

    Scotch git

    -- do you believe that those on Cable Street (both present and absent) had this as an ideal ?


    --Why do you not admit to the civilian Palestinian death omission to your link posted ?

    --and blame ´Spiegel´ for your mistake.

    --or are those failings your simplified answer to the past, present and future ?

  • Comment number 9.

    Scotch Git

    --If those are not your ideals --then distance yourself from ´Anschluss´ and discrimination -- ´for once and for all´-- that will allow you to answer #1 XieMing correctly.

  • Comment number 10.

    It is correct that there were hundreds of children and other innocents killed by the Israel action.

    The numbers are not determining. For example, genocide is a matter of intent and whether the body count is 350,000 or 6,000,000 does not change the crime.

    "War crimes" is a charge bandied too easily about. For example, Navi Pillay is claiming there has to be a "civl war" for there to be a "war crime" in Syria. (I think that she needs to be replaced, but it is something to discuss).

  • Comment number 11.



    Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad does mention civilian casualties in the article to which the link at #3 leads. Perhaps you only see what you want to see.

    #7, #8, #9


    My #3 was, as you point out, a response to an erroneous statement made by XieMing at #1.

    You do not have this excuse. Why, then, are you attempting to ignore the situation in Syria and make this blog thread all about Israel?

    Don't bother responding. Everyone familiar with your opinions knows the answer already.

  • Comment number 12.



    "The numbers are not determining. For example, genocide is a matter of intent and whether the body count is 350,000 or 6,000,000 does not change the crime."


  • Comment number 13.

    Americans intervene when they want.
    Have you seen intervention against Israel when it comes to Palestine? Have you seen intervention in Bahrain where sits an entire American fleet while Bahrain's People fight, march & die for that illusive thing called democracy? In fact did you see an intervention against the United States when it was ripping apart Iraq? What about intervention against all those arrogant countries that without UN approval (except for humanitarian aide) intervened in Libya?
    Let's not talk intervention. Let's talk military imperialism and who has it and who does not.

  • Comment number 14.

    I read that Israel is calling for a halt to the Syrian bloodshed. How ironic!
    Why on earth does Israel not start closer to home - with Palestine!

  • Comment number 15.

    #11 Scotch Git

    "Everyone familiar with your opinions knows the answer already."

    --My views are multi-faceted on many topics. The people I have met, my interests and the countries lived in and visited --do, I realize -- cause some contributors problems -- as your remarks demonstrate.

    -- My link to ´Cable Street´ was a compliment to the British working class -- whether Gentile or Jewish -- I see you ignored it.

    The region is highly volatile -and Israel plays no small role in this. Do you forget the Syrian Golan Heights -- ALSO annexed and being taken over by ´Israeli illegals´?

    --the topic is far from being ´Syria´alone -- no matter your wishes.

  • Comment number 16.

    It's always the kids who lose.

    The only difference is who cares and about which ones.

    More, or less.

    But as it pleases some to trade links and stats in this less than edifying arena, and inevitably drag to another topic to the one from that of the author, as it suits such obsession here's another one to work up some moral relativism over...


    I cannot, of course, testify to the accuracy of this, and so accord it the same as I would anything from, say, Wikipedia... or, these days, the BBC.

    Unlike too many. Who appear to like their history complex to the point of being only the one they have written. Or written for them.

    And get unsettled when a comfy little point of empathy and communal fellowship gets intruded upon by other realities.

    '"Is it possible that, in intervening to stop one evil, we will create a greater evil in the future?"

    History, and those doomed to repeat it, does spring to mind. The bit that always worries me is when that word 'we' crops up, especially from those who claim to speak for me, and even more so when not even as part of a vote.

  • Comment number 17.

    Governments are always cautious when discussing actions against another government for abusing its people. Although this is regularly done with spies and corruption, the outward expression of undermining another government is frowned upon. Blowing up a town of dissidents seems a bit aggressive. When governments suppress opposition with extra-legal measures it is difficult to organize a resistance. When more of the army sides with the people, things will change..Iran, Iraq, Syria and others watch their brightest minds leave for places of greater freedom. The brain drain will be the downfall of these regimes. As in the West, the consolidation of wealth and power produces negative impacts on everyone else and dissent follows. The approaches may be different but the underlying issue is the same. Defending some corrupt minister in Syria is no different than defending corrupt bankers in the West....the Western governments aren't shooting their own people.....yet.

  • Comment number 18.

    Homs is the main center of the Syrian oil industry. The 550 - kilometre pipeline Tel Adas-Tartous transports 250,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Rumeila oil field in northeastern Syria to the refinery in Homs. There, petrol, gas and petrochemical products are produced, which then go through a pipeline to the Baniya export terminal on the west coast. It is one of the most important sources of income for Syria and also crucial for the self-sufficiency.
    The job of the infiltrated from the West and armed terrorist gangs have to conquer this strategically important infrastructure, which is why the fighting in and around Homs. They also blow up the pipelines to cut the oil flow and thus to prevent the money receipts.
    The media constantly bombards the world with ONE SIDE - the poor victims among the civilian population that suffers from the attack of the army. This involves the defence and protection of important assets and resources for the country. The terrorists hide among the population, they use as shields, and so there are dead and injured. Clearly, the West does not want democracy in Syria and no peaceful transition to self-determination. They want an internal war, so they supply the weapons to terrorist groups to create chaos and bloodshed takes place. They hypocritical require constant the end of violence, while they are there to contribute the most to violence. The will of the majority of the Syrian population - they give a damn. They only have geo-strategic interests in mind and want make flat another Arab country which has oil and bring under their control.

  • Comment number 19.

    It's the motives behind any potential intervention that should concern us - it has certainly concerned the Russians and Chinese. The Elites in the West are more concerned about reinforcing its hegemony than any concern for Syrian's welfare.

    Unlike Libya, Syria has 'friends', so I can't see any intervention happening through the Security Council - unless of course it suddenly becomes in Russia's and China's interest to do so.

    Has intervention in Libya been a success? It depends who for. As long as the oil and water flows Europe will be happy; I'm not sure about the Libyans. Who cares!

  • Comment number 20.

    I note that yet again Israel is talking of it's 'right to defend itself'. That Right does not to apply to Iran and Palestine of course. Would America tolerate an Iranian aircraft carrier in the Caribbean Sea? No. Yet Iran has to tolerate a US aircraft carrier and a battleship near its coastline, not to mention the hundreds of US bases surrounding her.

    Israel attacked first in 1967, so if Israel and America aren't a bunch of hypocrites they can understand if Iran attacks first today.

  • Comment number 21.

    #18 BLUESBERRY is certainly well-informed concerning Syria. I am most distressed that we must count on him instead of on the BBC for such information.

    One may debate matters of opinion here, but it is a serious indictment of the BBC that we are not furnished such facts.

    What we are offered are emotional presentations calculated to produce a public reaction that will favor toppling an independent regime (as the US Pentagon and the Israeli-informed Neocons have planned since 2002).

  • Comment number 22.

    The problem with Syrian intervention at this stage is as I have pointed out in a previous topic (A voice silenced, comment #8) is that at this stage, the danger of sectarian civil war trumps any possibility of rescuing besieged populations in parts of Syria where the opposition has a foothold. We have no idea about how strong the opposition in Syria really is in any case because of the lack of information from within the country. Even the ex-pat opposition groups like the Syrian National Council are so divided that they can provide us with very little reliable information. We do know that in major cities like Aleppo and Damascus, the Free Syrian Army such as it is, is ineffective and poses little resistance to the Syrian Army. Although Army defectors have joined the FSA, this has occurred on a small scale not involving defection of entire units. Officer defections have also been sparse perhaps because Assad maintained the Alawhite hold on officer commissions from his father's regime. Patrick Seale the British historian who wrote two books on modern Syrian history would agree that the delicate and diverse sectarian sociology of Syria poses the major problem for the integrity of the country. As was shown in both Lebanon and Iraq, the law of unintended consequences must be a major concern for this region of enormous subterranean volcanic eruptions.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    Although Libya has disappeared from the Western media since attention has shifted to Syria, the liberation movement from the dictatorial rule of Moammar Ghaddafi, facilitated by UN-NATO humanitarian intervention in 2011, is entering a dangerously perverse stage. According to Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar, as he predicted, tribal divisions are threatening to turn into civil war in Libya. After the National Transitional Council (NTC) ran into problems subduing loyalist elements in Tripoli and Sirte, rebel groups in the eastern oil provinces of Cyrenaica decided to take matters into their own hands. They installed an autonomous government separate from the NTC. The NTC has retaliated by declaring civil war. The UN and NATO have shown no interest in the new Libyan problems though it threatens their declared aims for the country. This again illustrates the problem with the unintended consequences of foreign intervention in "Arab Spring" uprisings. The dangers of sectarian and tribal/ethnic civil war cannot be ignored by outside foreign forces. They have their own agendas which are not compatible with the interests of the Arab populations of these countries. Lebanon, Iraq, and now Libya are examples of countries where intervention has created chaos among diverse warring Islamic and ethnic groups. The Baathist regime of Syria, headed by Bashar al Assad and before him his father Hafiz al Assad has for forty years maintained a secularist rule and peace among a very diverse population of Islamic sects, Christian sects, Druze, and Kurdish tribes. If the current Syrian rulers are overthrown the danger of sectarian civil war will threaten the country. Intervention by outside powers headed by the Saudi, Qatari, and NATO powers seeking their own agenda will create conditions for civil war. This is the true humanitarian catastrophe that awaits Syria.

  • Comment number 25.

    After several months of near hysterical media reports over the shelling of the rebel stronghold in the third largest city of Homs, which resulted in the deaths of two brave reporters, the wounding of two others and the deaths of a reported 7500 civilians and rebel fighters, the drama over the attempt of the embattled Assad regime to remain in power, came to a sudden mini-denouement this week. While Syrian forces moved on to the small city of Idlib (another rebel stronghold) and quickly subdued the fighters there, the heads of state of the US and Britain held what was billed as a "love-fest" in Washington. They discussed the situation in Syria and the mini-crisis in Afghanistan over a two day meeting. President Obama not only conceded at the end of the meeting that it was "pre-mature" to plan for an intervention by NATO in Syria but surprisingly concluded that a military intervention would be counter-productive, because of the danger of igniting a civil war in the volatile sociology of Syria. He did not mention the example of the ongoing sectarian civil war in Iraq but this would have been an obvious case study in which both the US and Britain played a big role in creating. Having made major miscalculations of his own in copying the semi-successful Bush surge in Iraq with a corresponding surge of his own initiative in Afghanistan which has obviously reached a stage of failure with the Koran-burning and unauthorized slaughter of Afghan families near the Bagram base by a mentally deranged non-commissioned officer tragedies, President Obama is encouragingly showing a sober realism about US entaglements in the "Arab Spring" opportunistic interventionism advocated by his French and British counterparts. This is encouraging because his liberal supporters have been hoping for such a realistic attitudinal change from the American president for several years. And fortunately this is happening as Obama's re-election campaign begins its critical phase to the November election date.

  • Comment number 26.

    In a YouTube video clip, Syria's Christians Live in Fear, reporter Rula Amin, talked to parishioners and the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Damascus. They told her that they feel safe under the Baathist government headed by Bashar Assad, but fear the opposition to Assad, whom they believe are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist Islamic extremist sects. They also criticized outside foreign governments who they complain are conspiring with the opposition to overthrow the Baathist government. The Patriarch said he has a good relationship with Bashar Assad and trusts him completely. The fear of what is happening to Syria is palpable in the looks and voices of the interviewed.


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