Strategic Dialogue: Syria

Syrian rebelIn this strategic dialogue about Syria, Islam Qasem and Phyllis Bennis square off on the question of military intervention in Syria. Would outside force save Syrian lives or make a civil war even worse? Qasem’s original essay can be found here. Bennis’s original essay can be found here. Here they respond to each other’s arguments.

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis BennisThe problem with most of the calls for direct U.S./NATO or other foreign military intervention in Syria is exactly the problem the author attributes to the other side: wishful thinking.

It is wishful thinking to imagine that the disaster facing Syrian civilians can improve by sending more bombs, let alone more men with guns. As the Afghan proverb says, “when two bulls fight, it is the shrubs and plants that suffer.” There are two bulls fighting in Syria right now – strengthening the weaker bull will only escalate the fighting and kill more shrubs and plants.

And it’s wishful thinking to imagine that humanitarian concerns have anything to do with U.S., NATO, Saudi, Qatari, Russian, or Syrian government decisions. This is about the protection of power and other strategic interests. If outside military force is used, it will be in the interests of those wanting to expand their power – not protecting those already in danger, and largely without regard for those endangered by the escalating military force.

Despite the regime’s long legacy of repression and brutality, it is not yet “a regime deprived of legitimacy at home.” Significant sectors of minority communities, including Shi’a, Christians, Kurds, as well as Alawites, and crucially the Syrian military and other security forces, continue to support Bashar al-Assad’s government. Despite some defections, Syria is not yet Egypt, where the military abandoned the dictator. And far from having only “helpless military capabilities,” Syria’s army and especially its air force are among the strongest in the Arab world. So it’s wishful thinking to believe that outside military force will somehow make the regime stand down. Instead, it will broaden the fighting.

When a civil war is raging unchecked, what is needed is more diplomacy, more negotiations, not less. Extending the UN monitoring team’s mandate beyond the current 30 days is crucial. It must also broaden its work from observing to engaging with all sides–the armed opposition, largely based outside the country, does not have the support even of everyone opposing the Assad government–with the goal of building a bottom-up potential for a ceasefire. That may be the best thing any outside force can do to help strengthen Syria’s internal democratic opposition and protect civilians.

As U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in the run-up to the U.S./NATO assault on Libya, a “no-fly zone begins with an attack…to destroy the air defenses….[T]hen you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down.” That means it starts with an act of war – this time against Syria. U.S. and NATO forces didn’t have casualties or prisoners to worry about, and they were willing to abandon Libya once the regime was overthrown, leaving the chaos behind.

Islam Qasem’s essay may not be “a call for an Iraq-style occupation of Syria,” but if the United States were to intervene directly, that is exactly what it would create. Syria would almost certainly create U.S. casualties and/or POWs – and it’s far more strategically valuable than Libya. A U.S. war against Syria is far more likely to look like Iraq than Libya. What will happen to civilians then?

Islam Qasem

Islam QasemThe case against intervention in Syria is unfounded. Those who argue against intervention are unwittingly supporting a form of intervention, which happened to be on the side of a brutal regime. The do-nothing strategy amounts to giving a green light to Assad’s killing machine to continue murdering civilians. Massacres are being committed day after day, yet skeptics have nothing to offer but superficial objections.

A good example is the essay by Phyllis Bennis. Her case against intervention is driven mainly by a zealous mistrust of Western intentions and a misplaced fear. Despite acknowledging the severity of the Syrian tragedy, she gives priority to speculation over hard facts – the daily killing of civilians. As if looking through a crystal ball, Bennis hypothesizes a military intervention that would ensure a region-wide sectarian conflict between a Sunni-coalition led by Saudi Arabia and a Shiite-coalition led by Iran. This is purely an assertion. The truth is Syria is already in a civil war, and that is why an intervention is necessary to help end the bloodshed.

Her real overriding reason against intervention, however, is the intention of the United States. In her words, “Whatever humanitarian concerns there might be, real decisions about direct military intervention will be made with little regard for Syrian civilians.” But then what exactly would be the real reason for military intervention? Not only does she provide no answer but she also fails to acknowledge that no military intervention is also based on strategic reasons. The reactions of foreign powers are always driven by national interests, but what matters in the case of Syria is an end to the killing.

Finally, there is the wrong comparison to Iraq and Libya. As if history ends with Iraq and Libya, by merely mentioning Iraq and Libya Bennis compels us to think twice about intervention. This logic, however, assumes that the interventionist mission is a one-size solution fits all. There is of course an ocean-wide distance between a full occupation and imposing a no-flying zone.

Worst of all, Bennis fails to explain how the killing will otherwise stop. Her only recourse is diplomacy, but diplomacy has been tried and failed. The UN-Arab mediator Kofi Annan himself admitted the failure of his mission to peacefully end the bloodshed. In the final analysis, other than sympathetic words, Bennis offers no hope for Syrians facing sure death. What stands between Assad’s razor blade and the survival of many Syrians is the action or inaction of foreign powers.

Islam Qasem is the head of the department of international relations at Webster University in The Netherlands and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and is also a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. You can stay up to date on events in the Middle East with her free newsletter.