Chris Van Es

Saving the Syrians

As the Syrian crisis goes from bad to worse, international calls for military intervention are increasing. But the argument for intervening runs into serious trouble when we consider whether to do so would cause more harm than good.

CANBERRA – Despite the United Nations Security Council’s belated endorsement of UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s peacemaking mission in Syria, confidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will cooperate in any serious or sustained way remains low, and calls for external military intervention continue. As Syria’s crisis goes from bad to worse, those urging armed force are invoking both the tragedy of inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990’s, and the triumph of decisive international action in Libya last year.

The proposals run the spectrum, from establishing no-fly zones, buffer zones, “no-kill zones,” safe-havens, and protected humanitarian corridors to arming the Free Syrian Army to fight Assad’s regime. Still others urge outright invasion to overthrow it. The agonizing question for those who believe that the international community has a responsibility to stop mass-atrocity crimes is not only whether any of these options is practically achievable, but also whether they will do more good than harm.

No military option currently has any chance of support from a UN Security Council that is still largely paralyzed by a backlash against NATO’s perceived overreach of its civilian-protection mandate in Libya. The only military option that has received any practical international backing so far – reportedly from some of Syria’s Sunni Gulf neighbors – is the arming of opposition forces.

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