Five reasons military intervention in Syria is wrong
By Matthew Fitzpatrick
Posted Wed 28 Aug 2013, 3:54pm AEST

There is something superficially appealing about the notion of forces of freedom overthrowing Syria’s oppressive government. But events are rarely that simple, writes Matthew Fitzpatrick.

The gassing of civilians by a military force is a crime and those who order it and carry it out are criminals who should be brought to trial.

The international community has such a court – the International Criminal Court – an institution which now has the world’s more brutal political and military leaders looking over their shoulder for fear they might be extradited to the Hague to answer for their crimes.

If Bashar al-Assad is found to have used poisonous gas on his own population, as almost certainly seems to have been the case, then he must be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

This, however, is a world away from the notion that the international community should militarily intervene in the uncontrolled violence of the Syrian civil war.

The situation is complex, but at its simplest, here are five reasons why military intervention in Syria would be the wrong response to the most recent gas attacks.

1. As the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated, the civilian death toll from external military intervention quickly comes to exceed that which prompts the intervention in the first place. Killing more Syrians than the Assad regime itself is no way to pay tribute to those killed by their own government.

2. Within Syria there is no military power that would welcome or support external military intervention, particularly from Europe or the United States. While the beginnings of the ‘Arab Spring’ phase of the civil war saw some Syrians engaged in a struggle for a democratic Syria, these voices have been drowned out by the sound of the weapons fired from rival militias. Alongside Assad’s troops, Hezbollah and Iranian military troops are fighting Lebanese Salafists, Al Qaeda and the ultra-Islamist al-Nusra Front. The only thing that all of these groups have in common is that they would welcome the opportunity to attack Western armies, no matter how altruistic their underlying motivations might be.

3. Internationally, there is no consensus that would offer a risk-free intervention. With Russia’s Vladimir Putin still deeply supportive of Assad (although Saudi Arabia is attempting to lure him away with the promise of oil) and China strongly opposed to external intervention, there is virtually no chance of a UN mandate sanctioning military action. Unilateral action by Britain, France or the United States against Syria would risk broadening the conflict into another Cold War, while also inviting regional players such as Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or even Russia to become even more heavily involved than they currently are. Such a broadening of the conflict is in nobody’s interests.

4. Intervention would only make sense in the context of an attempt to achieve concrete political or military objectives. None beyond ‘something must be done’ or ‘there is a need to respond to a provocation’ has been offered. There is no plan for stopping the multidirectional violence, much less rebuilding the nation. Simply bombing Damascus or Aleppo to assuage the conscience of the West that they ‘did something’ seems like the worst form of symbolic politics.

5. Perhaps more abstractly, a civil war is the most fundamental and brutal attempt to answer the question of who exercises the monopoly on the control of violence that underwrites the power of the state. Artificially inflating the power of one favoured but weaker faction to seize control of the state invites later challenges to this power in the not too distant future. Unless an indefinite guarantee of military support for the weaker faction is offered, that weaker faction (no matter how enlightened) cannot realistically be expected to maintain control over the state. The utter lawlessness in many regions of Libya today is the most recent example of what happens when outside powers back weak forces they deem to be on the right side of history in a civil war.

There is something superficially appealing about the notion of the legions of freedom on the march, overthrowing the forces of oppression. Events are rarely that simple.

In the case of Syria, it is certainly not the case that military action will offer a straightforward righting of wrongs. Rather, military action invites a series of unintended knock-on effects which could escalate the Syrian conflict in such a way as to endanger the lives of far more Syrian civilians.