The Risks of Intervention in Syria

No need to rush into the ongoing conflict in Syria, it could produce the opposite result to what was intended.

Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy
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Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy

In the wake of the assessment that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons, the calls for American military action are growing in number and stridency. The logic behind the pressure is that military intervention directed against Assad’s regime and the supply of arms to the rebels fighting him could together reduce the bloodshed. This was the logic behind the missions of intervention that Western armies undertook in the past few decades. However, this logic is questionable. One can list at least three reasons why military intervention could actually produce the opposite result and could increase, rather than reduce, the bloodshed.

First of all, military invention itself produces casualties. The air attacks launched by NATO forces in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011 – the two cases serving as the model that proponents of intervention are proposing be applied to Syria – led to the deaths of dozens of civilians and caused massive damage to civilian infrastructure.

Second, the very act of intervention would intensify the civil war in Syria. It would make a decisive military victory or the formulation of a compromise a more remote possibility and supply both sides with increased energy to continue the fighting. Moreover, as intervention amplifies the feeling that the existence of the present regime is a threat, it creates conditions for a widening of the scope of the regime’s attacks on the civilians who are opposed to it. This is another possible lesson that can be learned from Kosovo and Libya.

The third reason, which is by far the most important one, is the undermining of the present political order and the molding of a new one – in this case, the Syrian regime that will emerge atop the ruins of Assad’s. These are not processes that can be engineered by means of short-term external military intervention. The legitimacy of a dictatorial regime can also be assessed by the existence of an internal critical mass that is capable of toppling it and establishing in its stead a new regime. In the past few decades, such internal opposition has led to the overthrow of a considerable number of dictatorships. Military intervention reinforces this legitimacy artificially because it does not rest on grassroots political support and grants artificial legitimacy to the forces of the opposition as well. If these forces were to rely solely on broad-based domestic support, it is possible that they could bring about the removal of the regime and establish a new one even without external intervention. The result of such intervention is that the moment it stops, the opposition finds it difficult to set up a stable alternative regime. This failure only increases the bloodshed.

The developments in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years serve as pointed examples of the failure to set up a stable political regime after external intervention – which lacked strong domestic legitimacy in either country – brought about the destruction of the existing power structure. In Libya, too, the collapse of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime with the help of NATO attacks, followed by the failure to establish a stable alternative political leadership that could gain domestic legitimacy, has led to a struggle between the militias that is exacting a high price. According to various assessments, the cost of this struggle is nearing half the number of casualties produced in the civil war that preceded the collapse of Gadhafi’s regime.

Thus the substantive question that must be asked is whether, in light of past experience, intervention in Syria will bring about the desired effect, namely increased personal security for Syria’s citizens through assistance in the establishment of a new regime that would end the civil war. Even if Western armies decide to intervene, the scope of their operations should be limited, and the goal of getting rid of the present regime and replacing it with another – a move that has high potential for ensuring future bloodshed – should be ruled out. In any event, the Israelis who are today energetically calling on America to intervene should remember that such a move could increase the instability of Israel’s northeastern neighbor.

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