Four Reasons for Western Intervention in Syria
With an intervention by Iran and Hezbollah and quiet support from Russia, the tide of the war in Syria has turned and the downfall of Assad's regime – long considered inevitable – is less certain today. Saving him from domestic revolution and foreign intervention would strike a major strategic victory for Tehran and Moscow, the first such success for reactionary powers in the wake of the Arab Spring. Humanitarian and strategic considerations actually make a Western intervention desirable, here is why.
The Spectre of Retaliation
Thanks to the intervention by what must be considered the reactionist alliance of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, it now looks as if regime survival is in fact one possible result of the conflict. But given the scale of the conflict, a military victory will hardly be enough for the regime to re-gain and consolidate its control. So in trying to re-entrench itself, retaliatory and punitive action by the regime is a certainty, even if the actual fighting comes to an end. The more than 100,000 deaths in Syria are only a fraction of the death toll that will result from a defeat of the opposition. The international community has never defined what constitutes genocide, but it is clear that the fighting in Syria is producing results that come close to meeting whatever its basic metric is.
If the Assad regime were in fact to survive, it would be a major strategic victory for Iran. Such victory would offset any potentially positive gain by the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran. Alas, the Western powers' failure to act in Syria will only make a military campaign to stop Iran's nuclear programme more likely, provided of course that the threat of all options being on the table was ever intended to be taken seriously. This should bring the debate full circle. After all, there seems to be a consensus that the best way to avoid a war with Iran is to contain rather than to confront it. Containment, however, would require a readiness to deal with Iranian influence on its periphery and thus require a strategy to diminish its influence in the region. But letting Iran's major ally get away with whatever massacre Assad deems necessary is hardly a promising start into a containment strategy vis-à-vis Iran.
It is troubling how few lessons from past conflicts have been heeded in the context of the Syrian war. Over the past decades virtually all civil wars exhibited a remarkable and troubling tendency to spill across borders – from Bosnia to Rwanda and lately, Libya. But nowhere was this as likely as in Syria, where ethnic and religious cleavages cut right through its borders to both Lebanon and Iraq. To say that the fates of Lebanon and Syria are intertwined would be an understatement. The international community has invested heavily in stabilizing fragile Lebanon, and given the history and extent of Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs, it was an absolute certainty that the longer the conflict in Syria dragged on, the more likely Lebanon was to be pulled into it. Hezbollah's entry into the war has already expanded the battlefield to parts of Lebanon. By the same token, it is more than likely that Assad's regime will have to consolidate a victory by massive reprisals on Syria's majority population, sending even more refugees across the border after the war's eventual end. The consequence would be a massive upsetting of the political balance in Lebanon, another civil war in the making; hardly a scenario the international community should willingly accept as the price for non-intervention.
A Historical Moment
More than two years into the conflict, the hard truth is that in contrast to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the West's Syria-strategy – if that is not putting too heavy a burden on the term – has never been driven by the desired result of the conflict. Instead, Western powers have done too little too late. President Obama's desire to withdraw from the region, return to Realpolitik, and pivot to Asia, is increasingly at odds with what this historical moment in the Middle East demands. But if the West wants to have influence on the outcome of the Syrian crisis, it should stop forfeiting its interests. Sure enough, the spectres of Afghanistan and Iraq loom large. But so should Bosnia and Rwanda, conflicts in which the West sat idly by, while hundreds of thousands were raped, tortured and butchered. An intervention might be the only option left to deny reactionary powers a major triumph, though it is still unlikely to find support. Yet, while the failure to intervene might be forgiven by domestic audiences, history does not dish out forgiveness quite so easily.
Dustin Dehéz is a Senior Analyst for Peace and Security at the Global Governance Institute and author of Kalter Kaffee in Tiflis, which comes out October 8, 2013 and can be purchased here.
Opposing viewpoint in Laura-Lee Smith's "Counterpoint: Five Reasons against Western Intervention in Syria."