A few Thoughts on Syria Intervention(s)

September 7th, 2013 - I am, as a rule, not a fan of military interventions. I have never served in the military and when I actually had to make a choice about whether or not to, because back then Germany had compulsory military service, I chose to do civil service instead.

But I also studied International Relations, and I am realist enough to believe there are wars of choice and wars of necessity. The problem with Syria at the moment, though, is that this particular paradigm doesn't help. As far as I am concerned, the situation in Syria is unique. Unique at least in the sense that I don't find it helpful to compare it to what many people now compare it to: Halabja; Bosnia; Serbia; Libya. None of that helps me make up my mind.

What I do see though is that what should be separate discussions are more and more turning into one single discussion. Which again does explicitly not help.

Here is what I think.

1.- There is dirty little secret, an elephant in the room, that few people talk about, and it is this: The best (not the perfect, but the best) moment for an international intervention in Syria has long passed. It would have been roughly one and a half years ago when costs and results would have been possible to calculate. They aren't anymore. Which is why until the use of chemical weapons on a large scale became a near indisputable fact a lot of people were happy not to be asked about such an intervention anymore and were evenly happy not to raise the issue anymore. Now the situation has changed. There is an obvious reason to discuss the issue again.

2.- But, and this is a big but: This very fact means that we are now talking about a different kind of intervention for a different reason. Or to be precise: At least some of us are. Which leads me to this:

3.- What's being discussed at the moment, is really three different interventions: a) punitive reaction to use of CW. b) An intervention that would degrade the Syrian regime's capabilities and thus change the balance of power in favour of the opposing forces. c) An intervention that would actually (even if not publicly announced) degrade the capabilities not only of the regime but perhaps also of those powers within the opposition that are deemed dangerous, namely the Jihadists.

4.- These different approaches need to be treated and discussed separately. I believe that it is possible, e.g., to be in favour of one option and for very good reasons to be against the other ones at the same time. I personally for example think that CW use can't go unanswered. But am I in favour of an intervention that would degrade the regime to a degree that it would practically hand victory (whatever that is in Syria) to the opposing forces (no matter who they might be in a given place)? Not so sure.

5.- Which leads to another issue which in a way also is another elephant in the room that some participants in the debate like to not discuss: What kind of situation do we want to see in Syria? "I want Assad gone" is just not enough anymore. In my view, it is high time to talk about how the international community is going to react to the presence of a solidified Jihadist force in Syria. The fact of 6000 foreign fighters needs addressing as there won't be any domestic power able to reign them in in the foreseeable future, no matter what the outcome of the civil war. They will look for and find niches and operate from out of there. 

6.- And there is another big issue: How is Assad going to react? What do we know about the decision making processes in the Syrian regime? I daresay: Not a whole lot. Which effectively means, the possible scenarios in front of us range from "he will do nothing" to "all hell will break loose". I personally deny to make predictions about the regime reaction to strikes. I know too little.

7.- Given that, what should guide our decisions? A principle (CW use can't go unanswered!) or a desired outcome (We will make sure he can't use it anymore!) or caution (What if he starts a doomsday scenario?) or pragmatism (We have to react, but if we are going to, it is an opportunity to influence the outcome of the civil war)? I have to admit I have no easy answer. I personally lean towards reacting in a limited way. It seems the safest way to possibly achieve deterrence while at the same time not provoke the apocalypse.

8.- But I also believe that it is time to ask the question of what Assad is actually fighting for. What is he hoping to achieve at this point? Regaining control of the entire country is unrealistic. But if that is true, the question is: Wouldn't any hope of starting a politically moderated settlement have to start with this? I hate to say this because I would personally like to see all of this regime removed; but the regime hasn't collapsed, and it doesn't look like it is going to, so at least we have to think about  another terrible questions: How long could this civil war last? How many more may have to die in the absence of a military solution or a political settlement?

9.- My last point: At this moment in time, I believe, it is also necessary to take precautions against the prospect that the Syrian drama spreads to other countries in the region. It already has started to. But if powers like Germany are unwilling to take part in any proposed kind of interventions, they should at least make more of an effort to help stabilize Jordan and Lebanon and take in Syrian refugees.

This has been a long post. I hope I didn't bore you. If it didn't help you, it did at least help me in organizing my thoughts. I have spent most of my life discussing and studying the Middle East. The Syrian conflict really gets to me. I love that country and I really hope that one day not too far away I can visit their again and meet my Syrian friends. It's just that right now I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. First of all, to make up my mind, i started with this. You have to draw a line somewhere. Gasing your own people is so far beyond any international and human standards, that there has to be a military response. There has to be! Everything short of that is Munich all over again. And i am not going to sort out responsibilities here. The evidence, although circumstancial, is overwhelming. So, that’s that. What are the options now, militarywise? A proportional response. Why? Because that’s all there is. I am not suggesting carpetbombing Damascus, but taking out and permanently disabling all airports held by the regime and seriously crippling their supply routes should be doable in a matter of days. Let the opposition forces mop up of what is left of this bunch of thugs. Do I know what happens after the Syrian government is overthrown? I do not. The outcome is uncertain. But this uncertainty is better than setting an example for every future dictator to use whichever means he deems necessary. Using WMDs unpunished is unthinkable. Von Clausewitz’ saying that war is simply a continuation of politics by other means is not longer valid in an age where every mediocre dictator can get ahold of WMDs. It is true that war serves a political end but the true nature of war is to serve itself. So the only cause of action here is to end this military stalemate as fast as possible.
    And on a sidenote: I am disgusted by Angela Merkels refusal to sign a simple piece of paper with no military implications at all. This is Libya all over again. Unless there is a secret plan to introduce her as an honest broker with plausible deniability later, this was a dick move.
    my 2 cents