The dilemma of foreign intervention in Syria

After fighting the war for more than 2 years, the US is now considering aiding the opposition by firing missiles from the Mediterranean Sea into Damascus, the Syrian capital, in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

syrian civil war

Photo: WikiMedia.

The response came when the regime’s opposition released footage of Syrians dying after inhaling lethal gas. The opposition argued that in late-August, the regime launched a chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus, killing more than 1000 people. The US had indicated as early as last year that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be viewed as “crossing the red line”. Obama said the US had solid evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for this attack. Nevertheless, he is seeking an endorsement from Congress before launching any potential military operations.

Some have argued that Obama has been reluctant to respond strongly to the latest mass killings. But why?

First of all, survey results indicate that the majority of US citizens do not favour military intervention in Syria. Ever since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans have been skeptical of entering yet another conflict that could continue for many years and cost a tremendous amount of money. Despite entering combat for more than a decade, the country has not been successful in eradicating al-Qaeda or other extremist groups. Hence, it might seem to be against American interests to start another battle, considering the huge amount of debt that the country owes to other states.

Secondly, Bashar al-Assad had strong support from Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, and even Vladimir Putin. A strike from the US could escalate violence across Syria and further complicate the situation in the Middle East. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani has argued that it would respond strongly if the US is to attack Syria. Hezbollah has also hinted that it would attack Israel if the strike materializes. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netinyahu has put all missile defence system on alert. Egypt is still in chaos after the coup d’etat that ousted president Mohammed Morsi, while al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has tried unsuccessfully to launch a major offensive in Yemen during Ramadan. With the entire Middle East in chaos, an intervention might cause even more harm.

Thirdly and most importantly, the goal of the intervention – ousting Assad – might not even be positive in itself. The Syrian opposition is loose and by no means united. There have been clear indications that insurgents, including militants from al-Qaeda, are also fighting the regime. If the Assad regime collapses, it is almost certain that the factions are going to fight one another to take over the country. The prolonged lawless environment can potentially create a save haven for militant groups to train their fighters. The country will also be at risk of becoming a failed state like Yemen or Somalia. This could cause a huge blow to global security.

But does it mean non-intervention must be ideal? Not necessarily. The use of chemical weapons is by no means justifiable, and the world might be sending a wrong message to the Assad regime by not responding to it. He might then continue the use of chemical weapons and kill innocent people. A limited military strike in Syria could send a warning to Assad and deter him from launching chemical attacks in the future. However, if the US launches a major offensive, it could possibly escalate the violence and create instability.

The situation in Syria remains a huge puzzle to be dealt with. Policymakers would need some intelligence to solve the dilemma.


Copyright © 2015 Eric Cheung. All rights reserved.

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