We face a most daunting challenge. The world is on edge as superpowers across the globe debate and analyse information regarding the use of chemical weapons during the on-going Syrian civil war by Assad's government forces. All corners of the planet have conflicting views on the matter, and in the UK there is still no definitive action by the government. In this article, I will delve into the potential benefits and consequences of a military intervention in Syria by Western forces, and hypothesise alternative responses to this extremely messy situation.
There are several main arguments in favour of military intervention in Syria. First of all, few could disagree that the Syrian people need our help. Early in 2012, Barack Obama pledged to “foresee, prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities" and now is most certainly his opportunity to do so. Thousands of Syrians have been caught up in the violence, with over 100,000 people having died in the conflict as of July according to UN sources. Although many argue that involving the West would prolong the war with added danger, pro-interventionists claim that despite the continuation of the war with Western powers involvement in the long term, thousands of lives would be saved.
Another argument for a military contribution from the West would be to prevent and contain the civil war itself. Already there have been indicators of increased tension in the Middle East, with the likelihood of the conflict spreading to Lebanon almost inevitable, with Iraq, Israel and Turkey also close to forming genuine alliances. This also brings in the question of Iran; it is fairly clear that Assad must go, one way or another, but with Iranian support the chances of this happening have been called "a mere illusion". Iran are Syria's closest allies in the Middle East and possess a significant military presence in the region, therefore to take down Assad would result in Iran losing its most important base in the Arab world and a supply line to pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
A final reason why intervention may be favourable in Syria is that by training and equipping anti-Assad forces, the West could potentially form a strong barricade against extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda which have existed unchallenged by the Assad regime.
The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (Conservative Richard Ottaway) described the actions of Assad as "the straw that breaks the camel's back" and that intervention must take place simply in order to adhere to the Geneva Protocol of 1925. These reasons do appear to be strong and forceful on their own, although with every positive, in this instance, there comes two negatives.
There are bountiful amounts of consequences and arguments against a Western intervention in Syria, many of which provide powerful responses to the aforementioned advantages. The main issue, particularly in the UK, which has delayed much decisive action is the lack of an UN mandate, due to the fact that, as of yet, we don’t have all the information from the Security Council report. It is also still highly questionable whether Russia and China will be convinced of the notion of military action against Assad, when both countries have strong links with the incumbent regime. Despite the lack of a mandate, it has been outlined by the Attorney General (Dominic Grieve MP) that intervention could still take place without a Security Council resolution on the grounds of there being "extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”. Nonetheless, military intervention without UN clearance would undoubtedly be a risky move. As Sir Menzies Campbell affirmed "the effort to achieve a resolution...is a vital component of the doctrine of the responsibility to protect."
Another huge consequence of potential military action by the Western world is the looming question - what would come next? If the Assad regime was toppled, who would step in? There is no credible, cohesive political body that could assume transitory authority of the government to prevent anarchy and chaos in the streets; the Syrian opposition is a schizophrenic and fragmented entity that holds no real unifying force except their hostility towards Assad.
Another point raised by analysts has been - is it too risky? Can the West afford to go into an already tense Middle East all guns blazing, not only because, as George Galloway pointed out "how mad is he [Assad] going to be when we launch a blizzard of cruise missiles on his country" but also as it will more than likely spark clashes in Lebanon and all across the region. It is reasonable to suggest that military intervention in Syria could lead to a full-scale regional war, involving unquestionably destructive weaponry and even nuclear warfare - can the West justify action when this could be the result?
Additionally, very few politicians can look to past experiences with confidence of successful Middle Eastern intervention, far from it. The ghost of Iraq still haunts the corridors of Westminster and the Pentagon, something that cannot be unseen. The American populace has very little appetite for sending more soldiers into the Arab World after the disaster of Iraq. Although John Kerry has asserted that Syria would not be like Iraq, nor Afghanistan or Libya, one cannot look past the multifarious calamities of all these efforts.
A question put forward by the former British Ambassador to Syria - Sir Andrew Green was "whether the purpose is to punish the regime for their presumed use of chemical weapons?" If this is indeed the intention, then intervention is unlikely to have the "desired effect". There would be a great deal of damage and many innocent lives would be lost as a consequence of our weapons, and a Western attack could also strengthen Russian and Iranian ties to the regime- by doing this, Assad would attempt to rally the whole nation under his rule, defending Syrian soil from foreign armies.
So there are just some of the hundreds of disadvantages people have put forward regarding intervention in Syria, there are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes, and if you're willing to put soldiers’ lives on the line, you must be completely certain.
There have been many suggestions as to the alternatives to direct military action. One of which is supporting the Syrian opposition, by giving them support, equipment and advice. I would mean that the Free Syrian Army could grow in effectiveness but also have the experience and a degree of control from Western powers. However, the main issue here is who to arm; Syria’s armed opposition has no effective central leadership, and an influx of foreign money and weapons could make matters worse by proliferating the number of poorly coordinated and poorly trained armed groups, some even fear that the aid could end up in the hands of terrorist organisations who have influence in the rebel groups.
A no-fly zone has also been suggested as an alternative to "full-on" military action; this would replicate the NATO-led intervention in Libya that did turn out to be a successful mission. Finally, there has been the proposal of "safe zones" encouraged by both France and Turkey - regions in Syrian territory, along with corridors for the delivery of aid, creating a safe place for civilians, a buffer zone between the Turkey-Syrian border. Despite being in theory a good idea, the practicality of enforcing such zones is unrealistic in a short time frame, especially as it would involve a mass migration of civilians.
To conclude, this is a nasty situation, messy and unpredictable. There are some serious and vital decisions which must be made, and the sooner the better. As German paper Handelsblatt writes "humanitarian wars are still wars", indeed there always has to be a strategic motivation as well as a moral one. We are still plagued by the memories of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya- we must make sure not to make the same mistakes again.
Backbench Foreign Secretary