The Five Reasons the Outside World Won't Intervene In Syria

Putin is not the sole obstacle holding the world back. By Ramesh Thakur.
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April 24, 2014
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Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

The civil war in Syria grinds on, and yet the outside world continues to look the other way. Why the continued inaction in the face of such atrocities?

While Russian obstructionism in the UN over Syria has now been eclipsed by its actions in Crimea, Putin was not the sole obstacle holding the world back from intervention in Syria. The failure to act stems from five factors:

1. The Civil War

When Assad launched a fierce crackdown on the initially peaceful pro-democracy protests, the country swiftly descended into full-fledged civil war that sucked in various foreign jihadists and rival outside backers. This posed three challenges:


  • Is a state prohibited from employing force to fend off armed challenges to its authority?

  • With the ensuing spread and escalation of humanitarian crises, how can the moral hazard of encouraging other opposition and secessionist groups to take up arms against governments elsewhere be avoided?

  • What is the appropriate division of labour between R2P and international humanitarian and human rights laws in regulating the conduct of conflict parties in civil wars?

2. Confused Facts and Shared Culpability

In any war, critical question marks must be substituted for excitable exclamation points regarding facts and responses. Too often slogans pass for policy: something must be done; this is something; therefore this must be done.

Casualty figures are deliberately manipulated and misused through casual elision. Leading U.S. politicians, in particular, routinely condemned the Assad regime for having massacred more than 100,000 people. The best available estimate as of mid-September 2013 breaks down the total as follows (in round numbers):


  • Civilian deaths: 40,000;

  • Rebel deaths: 22,000;

  • Government soldier deaths: 28,000;

  • Pro-regime militia deaths, 18,000;

  • Others/unknown: 3,000;

  • Total: 111,000.

With regard to chemical weapons use—a qualitative escalation that does cross the “atrocity threshold”—the West did not help its credibility problem by jumping from the fact that they were used to conclusions that they were used by the regime. Seymour Hersh argues that, like Bush in Iraq in 2003, Obama cherry-picked facts and intelligence, presented assumptions as facts, implied a sequence that reversed reality, and omitted important intelligence pointing to the jihadist al-Nusra Front’s capability to make and mount a chemical weapon attack with sarin gas.

3. Limited Response Options

So, how could the world respond without further inflaming an extremely volatile situation? The fluid and confused internal situation; question marks over the identity, intent, and methods of the rebels; the risk of atrocities against minority groups if the regime collapsed; relations with Iran, China, and Russia; and the deepening Sunni–Shia divide all around the Islamic crescent made it impossible to assess the balance of consequences of outside intervention. A war-weary U.S. public doubts the West has any dog in the fight where a rebel commander filmed himself eating the heart of a government soldier and almost half the rebel fighters are jihadists. There is the added risk of blowback as radicalised Western Muslims take up arms to go and fight in Syria, and return with an extremist ideology and battle experience.

4. Libya Fatigue

The 2011 NATO operation in Libya exposed a critical gap between the proclamation of a no-fly zone, prohibition of regime change, and the effective provision of civilian protection. The post-Gaddafi turmoil and volatility in Libya further complicated international responses to the ongoing crisis in Syria by raising doubts about the long-term results of military action based on the tenets of R2P.

5. Disunity at the UN

Syria has not attacked a foreign country. Other than self-defence against armed external attack, only UN authorization provides legal cover for military strikes. China and Russia were adamantly opposed to such authorization without host-state consent and to any resolution that could set in motion a sequence of events leading to a Libya-style military operations in Syria.

Without UN authorization, military strikes would be neither lawful nor legitimate, just another instance of vigilante justice by a trigger-happy and seemingly out-of-control West. To the non-West rest, enforcing humanitarian norms inside another country’s sovereign jurisdictions means flouting higher-order global norms on restrictions on the threat and use of force internationally. Those norms are critical to most countries’ national security and international stability.

This piece was adapted from a talk given at the CCR2P conference From the Rwandan Genocide to R2P: A Journey of Lessons Learned.