Confession: supporting non-intervention in Syria requires considerable restraint on the part of this author. In Problem From Hell, Samantha Power had me at Rafael Lemkin.* To someone with a savior complex (okay, me), it seems like the most virtuous use of military resources: rescuing innocents, deposing tyrants.
Problem is, as we well know, in practice, it seldom works. Also in theory, military intervention is more likely to be successful when mandated by an international body. Unfortunately, it’s as difficult to get anything constructive done in the U.N. Security Council as it is in the U.S. Congress.
In a piece for the New York Times on May 30 titled For the White House, a Wary Wait as Syria Boils, Peter Baker wrote about precedents for U.S. intervention in recent years.
Every week or so, a cabinet or deputy cabinet-level meeting is convened on Syria and, much to the frustration of the participants, each time the choices on the table are more or less the same: more diplomacy, more sanctions. … Unlike in Libya, there is no defined rebel army holding territory that would be helped by airstrikes. Syria has a better trained, better equipped military, including Russian anti-aircraft defenses. And there is no United Nations or Arab League support for international force.
Meanwhile, James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under President Obama, not only said that “the difference was that Bosnia was in the heart of Europe and a test of NATO’s credibility after the cold war.” But, that “the Bosnians set up their own breakaway government so there was a clear entity to assist, unlike the inchoate Syrian opposition.”
In effect, he’s saying the opposition is too powerless to be helped. In other words, the more help it needs, the less likely it is to receive any.
It’s time for an intervention. The brutal massacre of over 100 people, mostly women and children, in Houla, Syria last week shook the world’s conscience. Despite more than a year of atrocities, the murder of civilians in Houla has spurred the largest global outcry to date and rare unified condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. It also brought increased calls for military intervention with U.S. General Martin Dempsey warning that he had contingency plans ready and that atrocities like those in Houla made military intervention, although a last resort, all the more likely.
But the massacre in Houla should also raise the specter of another kind of intervention. The international community should have a diplomatic “intervention” with Syria’s strongest remaining ally, Russia. In the chorus of condemnation that resounded after the massacre, Russia’s voice stood out for its glaring ambiguity. Even as it joined others in condemning what happened in Houla, Russia provided Syria with political cover and quashed any hope for meaningful action.
Kind of like an intervention by members of an Al-Anon-like group for nations that enable tyrannies. Syria’s civil structure aside, a pressing, but overlooked, pretext for military intervention does exist. At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles P. Blair explained in March.
Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon programs in the world. Moreover, Syria may also possess an offensive biological weapons capability that Libya did not.
While it is uncertain whether the Syrian regime would consider using WMD against its domestic opponents, Syrian insurgents, unlike many of their Libyan counterparts, are increasingly sectarian and radicalized; indeed, many observers fear the uprising is being “hijacked” by jihadists. Terrorist groups active in the Syrian uprising have already demonstrated little compunction about the acquisition and use of WMD. In short, should Syria devolve into full-blown civil-war, the security of its WMD should be of profound concern, as sectarian insurgents and Islamist terrorist groups may stand poised to seize chemical and perhaps even biological weapons.
In other words, Syrians and the world are faced with two possibilities, both equally disturbing: either the current regime uses WMD to suppress the rebellion or those aiding it (ostensibly) seizes them and uses them against the state and, by extension, the Syrian people. Of course, foreign intervention might, in itself, prompt the regime to activate its WMD.
Meanwhile, by all rights, concerns about a nuclear program Iran might have been developing a decade ago and its current uranium enrichment should pale in comparison.
*The man who coined the term “genocide” and got the United Nations to pass a convention, however limited, against it.
Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.