Great Debate: Intervention in Syria

The Syrian opposition has elected its new leaders. Will this make outside intervention more likely? Marina Ottaway, Tony Badran, Mordechai Kedar, and others weigh in.


This is the ninth post in the TMP series “The Great Debate,” a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors and students on a pressing question in international affairs.

With more than 40 thousand casualties and nearly half a million refugees, the Syrian Civil War has presented the international community with a very difficult situation. The escalating violence has increased regional tensions and has involved both Turkey and Israel. Neither the West nor regional  powers want to give the impression that they are doing nothing, but few meaningful steps have been taken to halt the violence.

Thus far, a significant argument against intervention has been the lack of coherence among the Syrian opposition. However, the election of a new Syrian National Council president, George Sabra, and the formation of the National Coalition Forces, under the leadership of Ahmed Muaz al-Khatib, it has been reported that the likelihood of outside intervention has increased, possibly to include direct military support from the West, in the form of weapons and military supplies.

To shed light on the issue, TMP’s “The Great Debate” turned to the experts to ask:

Does the prospect of a unified Syrian opposition make outside intervention more likely?


Marina Ottaway,Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Lack of unity in the ranks of the opposition is not the main reason why there has been no international interventions in Syria. The absence of a UN mandate, the result of opposition to intervention by Russia and China, is also important. So is the prospect for a costly war with many casualties among interveners. Contrary to Libya, Syria has a real army and air force. Furthermore, it is questionable whether the opposition has become more cohesive. At the insistence of Gulf countries, several European countries, and the US, Syrians have now formed a broader National Coalition of which the Syrian National Council is only one component. The new coalition should embrace all movements, including fighting groups inside Syria. If it really worked, it would be great in terms of real progress toward ousting Assad. The problem is that the large number of groups might result in a coalition that is even more divided than the Syrian National Council.

If the new coalition succeeds in maintaining some cohesion and has channels to the fighting groups, some members of the international community, including Gulf countries and France, will probably provide more and better weapons to the fighters, but direct intervention remains unlikely. The US will probably stick to humanitarian aid.

Marina Ottaway is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her most recent publications include “Getting to Pluralism,” co-authored with Amr Hamzawy and “Yemen on the Brink,” co-edited with Christopher Boucek.


Dirk Salomons, Columbia University

The question goes beyond my ability to predict or speculate. But from a humanitarian perspective, we have once more stood by idly as the neighbor’s house burned down, and the Raven’s quote “never again” sounds increasingly hollow.

We live in an anarchic post-9/11 free-for-all world and those that have the ability to alleviate the human suffering (NATO members, Arab League members and neighbors), by creating a no-fly zone, safe corridors for those fleeing violence or hospitality for refugees (how many wealthy NATO countries have opened their doors?), are cynically waiting this one out… A quarter of a million refugees, well over a million IDPs (internally displaced persons) — Obama’s Rwanda…

Dirk Salomons is the director of the Program for Humanitarian Affairs at the Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he also heads the International Organizations specialization.


Fernando R. Tesón, Florida State University

I do not know whether or not foreign intervention is more likely. I address instead the justification for such intervention.

The ony possible justification is humanitarian. But there are two understanding of what “humanitarian” means.

In view of the killings and the refugees, foreign intervention could be justified as a means to solve to stop the killings and return refugees to their homes. With the aid of the ICRC and others, an international coalition couldhelp address those humanitarian problems. This approach would be acceptable, except that the humanitarian crisis does not seem solvable unless a political solution is reached.

But “humanitarian” may also mean removing a bad government and installing a good one.  This was (apparently) what was done in Libya (no matter what the UN or the US said): the nefarious Qadaffi was overthrown and replaced with a (hopefuly better) Transitional Council.  In the Syrian case, I have serious doubts that this can be done. The problem is not (as the question says) that the opposition is not united. The problem is that the opposition includes factions that, once in power, will be likely worse than the Assad regime (hard as that may seem.) So, the family of democratic nations should remain agnostic about who should govern Syria, given that the goals of democracy and human rights are elusive regardless of which side prevails.

Fernando R. Tesón is Simon Eminent Scholar at Florida State University. He is author of the book “Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality” (Transnational Publishers 2005).


Eyal Zisser, Tel Aviv University

Two weeks ago following the gathering of Syrian opposition groups in Doha, Qatar, the establishment of a new organization, the National Coalition was announced – with a moderate Sunni cleric, Mu`iz al-Khatib, as its chairman. This body was designed to serve as an umbrella organization for more then dozen different opposition groups operating outside Syria. This organization was to include also the Syrian National Council as a member in this Coalition.

The establishment of the new National Coalition was sharply criticized by most of the opposition groups operating inside Syria, such as the Coordination Committees. Even the Free Syrian Army was reluctant to express his support, not to say, commitment, for the new Coalition.

Thus, it seems that nothing has really changed in Syria and that the opposition to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is still divided and lacks any popular support from within the Syrian society, not to say legitimacy.

In addition, there are some other explanations for the lack of any will to intervene in the Syrian crisis. After all the Syrian army is indeed bleeding, but still stands on its own two feet and can inflict heavy casualties to any foreign invader. There is also the fear that Syria will turn to be a new Iraq or Afghanistan for any foreign power who will try to get involved in Syrian affairs.

Since the working assumption in the West is that Bashar’s days in power are numbered, the easy solution is to let the Syrians fight each other til the last Syrian, but also till the imminent fall of Bashar.

Eyal Zisser is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University. His books include “Commanding Syria, Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power” (I. B. Tauris 2006) and “Lebanon: the Bleeding Cedar, from the Civil War to the Second Lebanon War” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2009 in Hebrew).



Francis Kofi Abiew, Kwantlen Polytechnic University

As a proponent of the legality of humanitarian intervention and its more ambitious sibling the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), it is rather unfortunate to suggest that the prospect of intervention for human protection purposes in Syria’s civil war is highly unlikely, at least, in the short term, despite the worsening situation and the prospects of a unified Syrian opposition.

There is a conjunction of critical factors which should prompt outside military intervention: namely, escalation of the conflict resulting increasingly in civilian casualties; internally displaced persons; and the trans-border refugee flows to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, not to mention that all of these threaten regional peace and stability.

However, none of these factors seem to outweigh the narrow national interest considerations of the Western powers that will motivate a military response. Specifically, American military power will be indispensable and a sine qua non in contemplating any such action, however, there is no such appetite by the newly re-elected Obama administration to involve American troops on the ground back in the Middle East, coming on the heels of withdrawal from Iraq. Moreover, given recent Anti-American protests in Egypt, and the Benghazi incident, the skepticism surrounding any outcomes in Syria that will ultimately turn out to be Anti-American has become an important consideration in the reluctance to intervene.

At best, the prospect of a unified Syrian opposition might favor or result in some form of financial, tactical, logistical support, or ultimately the imposition of a no-fly-zone, as in Libya, should this opposition be identified as pro-Western and can bring genuine democracy to Syria in a post-Assad era.

Francis Kofi Abiew is Professor of Political Science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, Canada. He is author of the book “The Evolution of the Doctrine and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention.”


Thorsten Benner, Global Public Policy Institute

“I hand over a country consisting of 95 percent leaders.” These were allegedly the words of Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli to Egyptian president Nasser when the two countries entered their short-lived merger in 1958. Until now, the notoriously splintered Syrian opposition has lived up to this image. Whether the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NC) can achieve true unity among the opposition forces, is very much an open question. That the SNC continues to exist is just one reason for caution.

True, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have been quick to recognize the NC as the legitimate representative of Syria. This raises the prospect of additional weapons deliveries as well as financial support for the areas under rebel control. But the Obama administration is still holding out with its judgment on the body it itself pushed to create in Doha.

Even if the US recognized the NC, it seems unlikely this would trigger broad-scale military intervention on behalf of the opposition forces in the Syrian civil war. Qatar and Saudi-Arabia prefer weapons deliveries to shady outfits to outright intervention. The furthest NATO members seem to be willing to go is something resembling a no-fly zone along the Turkish border.

Overall, the Obama administration’s skepticism about the virtues of an all-out military intervention seems to run deep. As the case of Libya taught us, a sudden about-face is possible. But at present, the so-far-elusive push for a political settlement among the parties is the preferred option. That the NC apparently rejects talks with the Syrian government and that there is no plan to make Iran part of a solution does not bode well for the prospects of this route. Tragically, a deepening civil war seems the most likely scenario.

Thorsten Benner (@thorstenbenner) is co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin. His publications include The New World of UN Peace Operations: Learning to Build Peace? (Oxford University Press 2011) and Critical Choices. The United Nations, Networks, and the Future of Global Governance (Ottawa 2000).


Mordechai Kedar, Bar-Ilan University

Before answering the question, let me remind you that there are some TWO MILLION citizens who were forced to leave their homes because of the violence and are now refugees inside Syria. They constitute 10% of the overall Syrian population.

No doubt, Bashar Assad’s actions – just like Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s – justify external intervention in order to send him and his regime away, as far as possible, from the Syrian people. He and his aides proved that they could not care less about the Syrians’ life, health and well being. The civilized world cannot and should not tolerate such a blood-thirsty dictator, and should do whatever it can in order to get rid of him and free his poor people from his yoke.

However, the question which poses itself is “what is the alternative?”, and here I should remind us all of the situation in Iran in 1978-9: The Shah, cruel, vicious and megalomaniac as he was, was ousted, and Khomeni – much more cruel, vicious and megalomaniac – replaced him. The world could accept nuclear Iran under the Shah, but not under the Ayatollah regime.

The question about today’s Syria is similar – who will replace Assad? – and nobody can give a credible answer. Nobody can guarantee that George Sabra will succeed in keeping Syria consolidated, especially because of the sectors which would rather establish states for themselves on the ruins of Syria: the Kurds in the district of Hasaka (the north-east), the ‘Alawites in the Ansariyya Mountains (the west) and probably the Druze as well in their district of Sweda (in the south). In addition, there is a good chance that the clans of Aleppo will take the opportunity to depart from the elites of Damascus, and the Beduins in the east – who never felt cozy with the city-dwellers and the farmers – will be willing to have their own entity.

In addition to the fragmentation of Syria, there is a good chance that some of the districts will be taken by force by radical Islamic groups, which already operate in Syria, and whose rhetoric reminds us of the discourse of Osama Bin Laden. The situation in Libya is a good example of a tribal society which hosts “homeless terrorists” with the fingerprint of al-Qaeda.

To sum: toppling Asad is justified, vital and urgent, since every week the death toll of the civil war is around thousand people, but supporting his opponents might be viewed retrospectively just like supporting al-Qaeda against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan of the 1980s. Any state which thinks about intervention in Syria should make sure that its Syrian friends are not al-Qaeda-like.

Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University. He served in IDF Military Intelligence for 25 years, and is author of the book “Asad in Search of Legitimacy: Message and Rhetoric in the Syrian Press under Hafiz and Bashar”(Sussex Academic Press 2005).


Stephen Wertheim, Columbia University

The new Syrian opposition will have to do much more than simply announce its formation, as it did ten days ago, before outside powers will seriously contemplate a major intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The opposition must first prove itself on the battlefield, over a period of months not weeks. It must translate its nominal unity into real cooperation, and it must hold its ground, if not advance, against the regime’s forces.

Neither task will be easy, though more arms from abroad should help. Unity has mostly eluded the opposition — divided along ethnic, sectarian, and ideological lines — since the Syrian uprising began 20 months ago. Indeed the new coalition formed partly in reaction to the worrying growth of Salafist factions, as the International Crisis Group recently documented. The government, for its part, controls the sky and is increasingly turning its advantage in heavy weaponry against fighters and civilians alike.

A critical question is therefore whether the big powers will establish a no-fly zone. This still seems a long way off. The outlook in Washington is more post-Iraq than post-9/11, and an air war in Syria will likely be riskier than the one performed last year in Libya, where recent events hardly whet the appetite for part two.

In the long run, however, too many foreign powers have too much at stake to let Syrians alone determine their fate. Guns are coming in already; larger efforts will surely follow. But how, when, and by whom remain far from clear.

Stephen Wertheim is a doctoral candidate in international history at Columbia University. His article “A Solution from Hell: The United States and the Rise of Humanitarian Interventionism, 1991-2003” appeared in the Journal of Genocide Research in 2010.


Tony Badran, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

In the run up to the elections, America’s Middle East allies were convinced that President Obama was too consumed with domestic politics to pursue a more muscular approach to  Syria. Once Obama secured reelection, they figured, he would review his Syria policy. However, now that Obama has won reelection, these regional allies are bound to be disappointed, as the US president is unlikely to change the policy of the last two years.

In fact, on the eve of the elections, Obama administration officials made it clear to US allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that an Obama second term would not alter the  president’s position on Syria.

Even after the formation of the unified opposition front, the National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces in Doha earlier this month, there has been no discernible difference in the US posture. The administration’s point man on Syria, Ambassador Robert Ford, told those gathered in Doha not to hope for a change in Washington’s stance. There will be no no-fly zone, and the US would not be providing the rebels with the anti-air systems they have been requesting. President Obama’s all but confirmed this in his comments on Syria during his press conference last week.

Despite this consistent message from the Obama administration, the recent news of a possible deployment of Patriot missile batteries along the Turkey-Syria border spurred speculation that the US and Turkey were working on some form of no-fly zone option after all. The Patriots may well end up being deployed. However, the administration has made clear that they were only to protect Turkey against a possible Syrian chemical weapons attack. In other words, the rules of engagement and command over the batteries are likely to be tightly controlled.

Obama has spent the last 20 months guarding assiduously against being dragged into direct involvement in Syria, even as Turkey and other regional allies have urged him to. It’s unlikely that he will now hand the Turks the means to force his hand.

Barring an extraordinary development, it seems US policy will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, to the dismay of US allies who hoped the election would make a difference.

Tony Badran (@AcrossTheBay) is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, DC.


Max Marder, Columbia University

At the risk of being glib, it’s safe to say the international community will adopt a “wait and see” approach with the new Syrian opposition. Formation of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces is an encouraging sign for the Syrian opposition. The Syrian National Council (SNC) elected a new president, George Sabra, and was subsumed under the new umbrella Coalition, headed by Moaz al-Khatib.

However, it remains to be seen if the Coalition can be the effective, united force that Libya’s National Transitional Council was in the lead-up to NATO intervention. Importantly, the Local Coordination Committees, an instrumental grassroots network of activists, has broken with the Coalition. The LCC feels—rightly—that the Coalition lacks a serious reform governmental reform plan or a fully representative composition. Regardless of the Coalition’s recognition by France and the US, its predominantly exiled leaders are still not recognized domestically as the full and legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Sabra, for one, has made it clear that he wants weapons before unity.

Of course, there is already informal intervention in Syria. Its civil war has always been a proxy war. Russia and Iran have lent material support to the Assad government and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the EU and the United States have all supported the opposition.

Ultimately, the formation of the Coalition doesn’t change the short-term prognosis for direct international intervention. It does nothing to erase the most difficult obstacles to intervention: a divided UN Security Council, the dearth of a plan for post-Assad Syria, a Middle East divided on a Saudi-Iranian axis, and domestic governments unwilling to pay the extraordinarily high costs in blood and treasure that intervention would entail.

Max Marder (@maxamarder) is a Master of International Affairs candidate concentrating in International Security Policy and specializing in the Middle East. 


This post of The Great Debate was compiled by  Ryan Beck, Rachael Levy, Max Marder, Krisztian Simon and Ariel Stulberg.

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