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The Bad Hawkish Case for Intervention in Syria

Interventionists have a warped understanding of responsibility in foreign policy.
syria rebels

Noah Rothman makes a bad retrospective argument for intervention in Syria:

The West had its chance to intervene in the bloodshed in Syria when it began. Ample chance, in fact. Western democracies were, however, snakebite by their experience in Libya, where the NATO powers that intervened in that conflict had no plan for the post-Muammar Gaddafi environment and left behind them a vacuum filled by Islamist militants. The West learned all the wrong lessons from that experience. Rather than to embrace of circumspect interventions with forethought applied to the post-war environment, not to mention the nation building required the intervention’s participating powers, the world community shielded its eyes from the terror that followed the Arab Spring.

Rothman misremembers the debate over intervention in Syria. In late 2011 and early 2012, Libyan war supporters were still prematurely and foolishly praising it as a “good” intervention that had “worked,” and they touted it as a model. The case against intervening in Syria in the beginning was that it didn’t meet the criteria that had been used to justify the Libyan war. The Libyan war was sold as a one-off intervention, not the beginning of a string of military actions, and while some in the Syrian opposition may have wrongly believed that they could get the U.S. and its allies to take their side early on that was never in the cards. There was no chance of U.N. authorization, there was no regional support for Western intervention (and there never has been any support for this in the years that followed), Syria was not as internationally isolated as Gaddafi’s regime, and attacking Syria was correctly perceived to be a much costlier, more involved operation. No Western government had any appetite for that. The conditions that had made intervention in Libya politically feasible never applied in Syria, and the subsequent deterioration of Libya and the surrounding region simply drove home how foolish the impulse to join Syria’s conflict was.

Staying out was the right decision then and later for all concerned. Western intervention in Syria’s civil war would almost certainly not have reduced the country’s suffering, but would have worsened it through the direct pursuit of the toppling of the regime. Intervention would not have produced a more stable Syria, but would have led to a more chaotic one that would have created even more refugees and displaced people. As in Libya, the “humanitarian” intervention would have made conditions much worse for the civilian population than they already were. These are just some of the reasons why Marc Lynch was right to describe the avoidance of direct intervention in Syria as “an enormously wise decision that the interventionist policy community will likely never forgive.” It is imperative to remember that advocates for intervention in Syria were focused primarily on hastening regime change and inflicting a setback on Iran at great cost to the people of Syria. The fate of the Syrians that suffered the consequences of that intervention was a secondary consideration at best.

Rothman tries to pin the deteriorating conditions inside Syria on the decision of Western governments not to attack Syria, which is a genuinely bizarre argument. If Syria hawks had had their way all along, the U.S. and its allies would have been inflicting death and destruction on Syrians for a long time, and many of them would have been innocent civilians struck by Western bombs. Supposing that such an intervention “worked” to weaken the Syrian government and make its collapse more likely, that would have exposed even more Syrian civilians to displacement, injury, and death. Had the U.S., Britain, and France pressed ahead with the illegal proposed attack on Syria in 2013, it would have aided the advance of ISIS and the Nusra front to the detriment of anyone that encountered them. There usually is nothing “humanitarian” about military intervention, and in the Syrian case it would have been positively cruel for the U.S. and its allies to add to the country’s misery by joining in the killing.

Interventionists have a warped understanding of responsibility in foreign policy. They would blame the U.S. and its allies for things they did not do, but they steadfastly refuse to hold them accountable for the actions that they take. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen is producing a humanitarian disaster that is quickly becoming the equal of Syria’s in the estimation of many aid organizations and the U.N., but interventionists either “look away” from this or offer rationalizations for it. We don’t hear that much about the 1.5 million displaced people in Yemen or the twenty-one million in urgent need of humanitarian aid or the Yemenis so desperate to escape that they are willing to flee to Somalia, and the reason we don’t hear about it is that the country is virtually inaccessible to most journalists thanks to the blockade that is also starving the population of basic necessities. Interventionists are eager to fault Western “inaction” for the crimes and abuses of others, but when it comes to our own policies they are indifferent or blind to the consequences. And so we hear lectures about the one humanitarian disaster in the region that the U.S. is least responsible for while the same people ignore the disasters that our government is actively helping to create.



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