Support for military intervention on behalf of the Syrian opposition forces
fighting Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite regime is gaining traction. A coalition
of Western and Arab nations meeting in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday agreed in
principle to aid the rebels. Present at the meeting were senior representatives
from France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United
Arab Emirates, Britain and the US. Only Germany and Italy are known to oppose
arming the rebels.
The push to provide not just humanitarian aid but also
arms comes after Assad’s recapture of the strategic town of Qusair on the
Lebanese border, spearheaded by Iranian backed Hezbollah forces and a renewed
assault by troops loyal to Assad on Aleppo, part of which had come under the
control of the rebels. Setbacks to the rebels have rekindled concerns that
Assad’s forces are winning the battle.
Rebel sources said that more than
100 people were killed in the war-torn country over the weekend, including 34
Hezbollah fighters in battles near Damascus.
There are a number of good
reasons for international intervention. Strengthening the opposition would help
prevent Iran from expanding its influence in the region whether directly (Iran
has forces on the ground in Syria helping Assad) or via its Lebanese proxy,
Hezbollah. Also, intervention could help contain the conflict and prevent
spillover, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or along the Iraqi
In short, intervention by a coalition of western and “moderate”
Arab nations could help maintain the borders – and relative stability – first
imposed after World War I by the Sykes-Picot treaty. The breakdown of the
post-Ottoman regional order, including the Balkanization of Syria, has become a
Amidst the anarchy, Kurds see an opportunity to carve
out part of northern Syria for an autonomous Kurdistan; the ruling Alawites
might end up with their own portion of Syria along the mountainous Mediterranean
coast – they have reportedly been “cleansing” predominantly Alawite areas of
Sunnis; and there is also a possibility that Hezbollah will attempt to create
its own Shi’ite enclave in Lebanon.
Even without the backing of the UN
Security Council, where Russia has repeatedly vetoed motions to intervene,
military intervention could in principle be justified from a moral perspective.
In 1999, the UN Security Council was similarly deadlocked on how to respond to
the mounting violence in Kosovo, and the US and other NATO member states went
ahead – without Security Council authorization – and intervened to prevent
In hindsight, the decision to intervene probably saved
thousands of lives. Similarly, intervention in Syria could help stop or at least
slow the pace of the bloodshed that has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. Many
would argue that the international community has a moral “responsibility to
protect” in the case of Syria.
Nevertheless, the decision to supply
weapons to the rebels carries moral dilemmas. There are very few – if any – true
moderates among the ranks of the rebels.
Indeed, the very dynamics of the
conflict in Syria are such that only the most extreme elements are involved in
violent efforts to overthrow the Assad regime. After all, what reasonable person
would be willing to fight to the death alongside Islamists and offshoots of
al-Qaida and generate the requisite death and destruction to topple the Assad
regime? More likely, the moderates and liberals of Syria are to found among the
millions who have fled their shattered nation, seeking refuge in Jordan, Turkey,
Iraq and Lebanon. Those who remain either have no choice or are motivated by the
sort of ruthlessness and unflinching certainty of purpose shared by religious
extremists to kill or be killed for their faith.
Even if the Western and
Arab nations that support intervention manage to keep arms out of the hands of
the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, they will still be arming forces
aligned with the anti-American, anti- Semitic, anti-Christian Muslim
While there are good reasons to intervene in the ongoing
Syrian quagmire, not the least of which is a moral obligation to end the
bloodshed, intervention creates problems of its own, which should be seriously
considered before limited intervention snowballs into uncontrollable escalation.