Even after Tunisia and Egypt’s uprisings, many observers shared the view that Syria’s regime would be spared because of its “unique” characteristics; Assad appeared to be relatively immune to internal challenges. (Droz-Vincent 2014)
However, this view and optimism quickly diminished with the initial protesting coming from the ‘peripherals’ of the Syrian country and quickly evolving into a full-blown civil war.
This was the result of an influx of rebel fighters with both moderate and extreme views taking up arms against Assad, fragmenting the Syrian population. The resulting conflict has been brutal and destructive with more than 191,000 people killed in the first three years, according to a U.N. report. (“More than 191,000 people killed in Syria with ‘no end in sight’ – UN” 2014)
Ultimately, cries for humanitarian intervention by the West, and subsequently the United Nations, have been silenced by the East, most notably Russia and China through their position on the United Nations Security Council
The West decries the dire need for humanitarian intervention to oust Assad and stop atrocities. They also are looking for a long-term regime change towards a more favorable democratic structure, while Russia and China are still reconciling with their Libyan experience. They know now that their interests are best unserved through intervention.
Because of this, they have instead stressed the need for a peaceful international resolution built on the principle of non-intervention. These two separate views clash and have ultimately allowed for the civil war to continue for far too long now. The longevity and brutality of the conflict prove there must be some form of intervention. There is an obligation on the part of the international community to intervene through other measures, not militarily against Assad.
These actions include; helping to crush the terrorist influx into the region; providing funds to countries willing to support refugees, and relieving spillover to protect people that are currently in their power to protect. However, what should not be expected is a full-blown armed intervention to return stability, and subsequently, oust the Assad regime.
This is because of the ultimately competing interests of China, Russia, and the United States that makes any unauthorized or unilateral intervention towards Assad essentially out of the question. This article discusses why military intervention into the Syrian crisis is not possible using the insights of liberal internationalism and realism.
Theoretical Discussion – Liberal Internationalism
Liberal internationalism is a foreign policy doctrine that argues that liberal states should intervene in other sovereign states to pursue liberal objectives. (Hibbert 2011) Liberal Internationalism is dedicated to promoting democracy, the rule of law, and human rights through international institutions and multilateral organizations. It subscribes to the democratic peace theory but has been criticized for its war on tyrannies.
The central concept to be utilized from this doctrine will be the responsibility to protect (R2P) initiative, which is the leading contemporary tool that can be used to intervene in a foreign dispute. The R2P doctrine emerged to help settle the debate between intervention and state sovereignty.
It has however been the center of harsh criticism because of its functional incapacities and failure to stop current atrocities being committed.
R2P is a new concept that emerged to settle the debate between state sovereignty and the right to intervene, making it the ‘responsibility’ of the international community to act to stop mass atrocities. What emerged was a new international norm countering the very basis for our modern global system; the Treaty of Westphalia.
R2P disregards state sovereignty as being the states right. Instead, R2P states that in cases where there is evidence of mass atrocities or state failure to protect the population, then the international community has the right, or more so, the obligation to intervene. (Glanville 2012) R2P frames this global responsibility as encompassing not only coercive interventions (the responsibility to “react”), but also the obligations to “prevent” and “rebuild,” which are portrayed as helping states gain the capacities to exercise sovereign responsibilities. (Graubart 2013)
However, there are still many problems with the R2P doctrine that hinder its application in the international system, mainly; the Security Council’s veto system. Despite R2P’s significant contributions to the protection of populations over the past decade, the Security Council’s veto system can still create situations where states can commit mass atrocity crimes against their citizens. (Williams et al. 2012)
This failure, however, has led scholars to call for a pragmatic standard for humanitarian intervention.
Syria and Robert Pape’s Pragmatic Standard For Humanitarian Intervention
In the face of criticisms of traditional R2P some scholars, like Robert Pape, are calling for a ‘pragmatic standard’ for the implementation of R2P in Syria. The standard has three requirements:
(1) an ongoing campaign of mass homicide sponsored by the government; (2) a viable plan for intervention with reasonable estimates of low casualties for the intervening forces; and (3) a workable strategy for creating lasting local security for the threatened population. (Pape 2012) Pape contends this standard was met in Libya and asserts that Libya is ultimately a case of ‘successful’ intervention and should be applied to the Syrian crisis. However, this disregards the instability still suffered by the fractured Libyan state and the problems associated with an overthrow and go technique. Ultimately this version of R2P is inapplicable to the Syrian Crisis and overlooks a few key issues that were left unresolved in the aftermath of intervention in Libya.
(2) a viable plan for intervention with reasonable estimates of low casualties for the intervening forces; and
(3) a workable strategy for creating lasting local security for the threatened population. (Pape 2012)
Pape contends this standard was met in Libya and asserts that Libya is ultimately a case of ‘successful’ intervention and should be applied to the Syrian crisis. However, this disregards the instability still suffered by the fractured Libyan state and the problems associated with an overthrow and go technique.
Ultimately this version of R2P is inapplicable to the Syrian Crisis and overlooks a few key issues that were left unresolved in the aftermath of intervention in Libya.
Pape’s pragmatic standard ignores the fact that Libya is now a failed state precisely because the U.S. and its allies helped remove a parasitic dictator without contributing to forge a political structure to replace him. (Metz 2014) Instead, they hoped that the Libyans themselves, coming out of a long nightmare of a dictatorship and a vicious civil war, would figure it out for themselves. (Metz 2014)
The severity of the situation in Syria is unprecedented with an influx of groups fighting and gaining territory, most notably the jihadist actors such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and notorious Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). These are only two of the Jihad factions; however, there are many other factions with views from moderate to extreme fighting for the same territory which has only deepened state fragmentation.
Not only this but the Syria is not Libya, and Assad’s capabilities should not be underestimated. This makes standards (2) and (3) difficult to achieve in Syria, with both requirements running into problems that I will discuss below.
Thus, to impose a top-down approach to a shaky democratic structure may not be able to solve the situation adequately. There is no proof it will be able to provide stability or even be successful for the matter. This because Syria represents a rate of foreign-fighter influx into a civil conflict that is unprecedented in modern history, while Assad is also a formidable opponent. (Lister 2014)
Even if a full-scale humanitarian intervention is launched through unilateral measures or a coalition of the willing, it is subsequently doomed to fail. Syria is not Libya.
A large-scale military intervention may have been possible in the early stages of the conflict, however now it is best to respect Syria’s sovereignty and help them ultimately repel the terrorists. This is because the military implications in Syria are on a different level than Libya.
The military risks are much higher with less chance of success, and the international community has already shown before they don’t want to shed their own blood when intervening. This is why they are arming and training what they believe to moderates to fight in Syria.
However, even these methods are backfiring helping to aid the rise of groups such as ISIS. According to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats, most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster. (Sanger 2012)
As one frustrated Syrian soldier put it “I know, but we are fighting Israel. I joined the army to fight Israel. And now I am fighting Israel’s tools. And the tools of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, so in this way, we are fighting for Golan. This is a conspiracy and the West is helping the foreign terrorists who arrived in Syria, the same terrorists you are trying to kill in Mali.” (Fisk 2013)
The harsh reality is that if the U.N. decides to act to oust Assad through a humanitarian intervention campaign; there will be losses on their part and it may deepen the humanitarian crisis further.
The Syrian Regime is not comparable to the Gadhafi regime.
First of all, Syrian armed forces are considerably stronger, with 292,400 active personnel with a 325,000 reserve force, 4950 tanks, 6610 infantry fighting vehicle, 2160 artillery, 3310 anti-air weapons, 830 aircraft, 19 navy ships (2 frigates) and an unknown number of long-range strike systems. (Türkmen 2014)
Secondly, the emergence of Hezbollah presents a direct threat to any forces which attempt to intervene, proving to be a robust and worthy opponent with a vast network that can generate substantial influence.
Thirdly, Assad has been heavily supported and provided sophisticated weapons by Russia, which makes even imposing no-fly zones difficult to enforce. Recently Russia has stepped up supplies of military gear to Syria, including armored vehicles, drones, and guided bombs, boosting President Bashar al-Assad just as rebel infighting has weakened the insurgency against him. (Saul 2014) Even more recently Russian foreign minister defended his country’s sales of anti-aircraft systems to Syria, insisting they are not banned by international law. (“Russia Defends Syria Arm Shipments” 2013)
It is clear Syria presents a difficult situation. Any direct intervention against Assad will be met with massive resistance, which deters the U.N. from being able to impose direct military intervention. The balance of power is strong with this conflict, providing grounds for possible realist insights.
The Accusations of Chemical Warfare
The Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons on their own population to repel the rebels.
Despite the United States ‘certainty’ that Assad did ‘indeed’ use chemical weapons, the only person who would lose from the deployment of chemical weapons was Assad himself. The rebels had everything to gain from such an action.
The allegations of chemical weapons came at a time when Assad was still barrelling through the rebel resistance. Assad had more than enough in his arsenal because of Russia to handle the rebels without having to resort to the use of chemical weapons. The only way at the time for foreign entities to intervene would have been through such methods that are considered ‘crimes against humanity.
Yes, he had the stockpile of chemical weapons, this also means he was most likely well versed in their deployment while being able to weigh the positives and negatives of such an action. And if Assad is rational (which also may not be the case), the negatives surely outweighs the positive.
However, Assad isn’t the only one being accused of deploying chemical weapons. The rebels also have been charged with using such weapons. Faysal Mekdad the Syrian Deputy-Foreign Minister and former Permanent Envoy to the United Nations Claims that terror groups have used chlorine gas in several regions of Syrian and Iraq. (The Associated Press 2014)
This falls more in-line with the realist thinking because the rebels could easily increase their relative power against Assad by deploying chemical weapons and crying wolf to mobilize support. Assad would only decrease his relative power through their deployment through international isolation and a Western-backed intervention under such pretext.
Although, it is important to note that within Syria it is not always clear who is calling the shots. However, the complexity of the situation is genuine, with another layer being added through the additional consequences of globalization; transnational terrorism.
Transnational Warfare and Terrorism
This form of conflict may be the emerging norm and also hinders the ability to intervene in Syria. Foreign fighters weaken domestic insurgencies by introducing new ideas regarding their objectives and how these struggles should be waged. (Bakke 2014)
The rise of transnational terrorism has led to increasingly mobile and efficient jihadist networks and may be precedence for new emerging norms. This is because globalization has resulted in such organizations becoming increasingly more capable of taking advantage of regional instability. As one scholar noted, “the Syrian jihad has become a truly international phenomenon, with at least 15,000 foreign nationals from at least 90 countries having engaged in combat in the country since 2011.” (Lister 2014)
This number is astounding and it what has prompted the United States and other nations to begin an air campaign recently to combat groups such as ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Although I do believe that intervention must be taken to stop the insurgency and rise of Islamic extremists, the legality of the intervention can be questioned as the West has failed to notify Damascus of their operations within Syria. However, Assad is not quick to condemn such actions because they have ultimately helped him regroup and remobilize, making the liberal internationalist’s intervention counter-intuitive.
The tactic of coordinated airstrikes intervention within Iraq and Syria has proved to be a double standard for the United States foreign policy, and subsequently the West. The U.S.-led coalition’s strikes have enabled the Assad regime to reallocate assets to face mainstream rebels, whose defeat remains the regime’s top priority. (Wellen 2014)
The rise of ISIS has forced the United States foreign policy to become contradictory.
They wish to see Assad gone, and democracy enacted through supplying and training rebels. However, their airstrikes to hinder the ISIS advancement are allowing the Assad regime to make up for coordination failures and become more efficient to counter back against the rebels. A counter-intuitive policy.
Since strikes against the Islamic State began, regime forces have gained ground against mainstream rebels on the main fronts in Hama province and Aleppo city; in the case of the latter, they have done so against the very same rebel groups that are confronting the Islamic State in the nearby northern countryside. (Wellen 2014) Ultimately, the West should be seeking to co-operate with Assad at least in the short-run to return stability to the region and stop atrocities being committed.
Full-scale intervention against Assad under R2P has proved to be difficult, and even the ‘pragmatic’ R2P has difficulties. Efforts to hinder Assad have only helped to strengthen him. He may just be ‘too big to fail’ in the current condition. This brings the need for further theoretical discussion in order to draw further insights.
Theoretical Discussion – Realism
Realism is the international relations theory that contends that the international system is characterized by power politics. The state is the highest actor, and all power resides within it. Realism asserts that that international system is one that is characterized by anarchy, and within this anarchical framework; countries compete for zero-sum gains in every transaction. Nations are then stuck in a competition of asserting their national interest against every other country’s national interests. This means a government will never agree to something unless their perceived gain from the situation outweighs the opposition and vice versa. States are then generally self-interested, with their primary concern being survival within a system of anarchy. This also points out an obvious flaw in the realist argument because states do mainly co-operate although, they may still be in a state of war of all against all with each other.
Nations are then stuck in a competition of asserting their national interest against every other country’s national interests. This means a government will never agree to something unless their perceived gain from the situation outweighs the opposition and vice versa. States are then generally self-interested, with their primary concern being survival within a system of anarchy. This also points out an obvious flaw in the realist argument because states do mainly co-operate although, they may still be in a state of war of all against all with each other.
This also points out an obvious flaw in the realist argument because states do mainly co-operate although, they may still be in a state of war of all against all with each other.
Realism and Liberal Internationalism Contrasted
Realism is essential for explaining how the world is, in contrast with Liberal Internationalism which tends to subscribe to how the world ought to be. Since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, respecting state sovereignty has been one of the most crucial factors in shaping our current international system. This realist view that sovereignty should be held to the utmost value is in direct conflict with emerging global norms specifically, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. The emerging norm of R2P is attempting to rewrite the power rules through making it the international communities ‘responsibility’ to intervene, and reducing states ‘right’ to non-intervention. This has created friction between the realist view of sovereignty and the liberal internationalist view of intervention because it is attempting to shift the importance of power within state relations. This is because countries may use the R2P doctrine to advance their national interests through the guise of humanitarian intervention. Essentially it is the pursuit of a liberal internationalist doctrine to further ultimately underlying realist motivations.
Although Syria would appear to present a textbook case for Security Council action under its Chapter VII powers, Russia and China have vetoed three separate resolutions aimed at holding the Assad regime accountable. (Williams et al. 2012) The Conflict in Syria, and subsequently intervention through a realist lens, comes down to power. The primary objective according to realists is to maximize power. This is why intervention will only be possible unilaterally because both Russia and China have military and economic interests with Syria. Even China whom it would appear doesn’t have much interest in Syria chose to veto. They could have abstained and allowed Russia to block the resolutions alone. China vetoing the resolution is a statement. It is a statement of their power and how they are not pro-status quo with the West. Both countries have learned from the Libyan experience that their interests are best unserved when Western-backed humanitarian intervention turns into a regime change operation. This is evident their actions of vetoing three of the resolutions drafted to cripple Assad. This was also re-affirmed by Sergei Lavrov of the Russian Foreign Ministry, “The international community, unfortunately, did take sides in Libya and we would never allow the Security Council to authorize anything similar to what happened in Libya.”(Sergei 2012) It is also necessary for Russia, China, and Iran to keep Assad in power to order to maintain the Easts relative powers towards the West. Iran has been becoming a rising regional power in the east, and to the US a regime change in Syria would subsequently hinder Iran through diminishing their regional alliances. This is a loss-loss situation for both Russia and China. Thus, an intervention will only happen through a coalition of the willing, but will most likely face harsh criticisms from the East, especially if the subsequent action is a regime change.
Under the realist lens, the West wants Assad ousted to weaken Iran, Russia, and China’s relative power towards them. In respect to Iran foreign relations, the only Arab state to maintain close ties with them is Syria, and subsequently Assad. To eliminate Syria would be to strike a blow directly to Iran which is now a rising regional power. This provides a framework for a partial explanation as to why Hezbollah, a proxy group funded by Iran, has been fighting to help Assad maintain power. Another is that Hezbollah needs Assad for their political continuity. Syria provides Hezbollah with valuable support including the provision of material supplies, a haven for their leaders, and as a transit partner of weapons and supplies from Iran to Lebanon. (Rogan 2011) The group’s appearance is significant and complicates the debate on intervention even more. Even though they are classified as a terrorist organization by the West, they are a formidable opponent being Lebanon’s most powerful military and political organization. (Barnard 2013) The Hezbollah organization can even be referred to ultimately as a ‘state within a state,’ because of their capabilities and influence. However, removing Assad from power would substantially weaken Iran and Hezbollah, helping to eliminate threats against United States interests.
Russia’s unhindered support for the Assad regime poses many problems for the liberal internationalist. Russia has provided a diplomatic shield for Damascus in the UN Security Council and has continued to supply it with modern arms. (Allison 2013) Although the move has been made to make airstrikes within Syria territory, subsequently they have only helped Assad re-affirm his power. A full-scale intervention will not be possible without both Syria and Russian approval. It is not within Russia’s national interest for Assad to be ousted. Moscow rejects calls for the departure of Assad as another case of the Western community imposing standards of political legitimacy on a ‘sovereign state’ to enforce regime change, with future implications for Russia or other authoritarian members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. (Allison 2013) The only way that removing Assad would work is if some multinational coalition committed itself to years, even decades, of peacekeeping, economic reconstruction, and political tutelage, possibly in the face of armed resistance from local militias and warlords who have grown powerful during the civil war. (Metz 2013) However, as we have seen the international committee is quick to criticize but slow and inadequately able to provide necessary funds to create long-term peace and stability. Even if the international community did intervene, Assad is not Gadhafi, and the military risks are much higher than Libya. With the failures of R2P, the international community would most likely be left with another country in chaos. Ultimately the best thing to do is to take a realist stance and respect the Syrian countries sovereignty and to try and mitigate and support the displaced populations. R2P is past the point of being able to be properly imposed on the Syrian country because through the realist lens the power interests are too great.
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