Should We Intervene In Syria?

As I write this conflict is raging in Syria. For the past two years a vicious war has been ongoing with 100,000 killed and 2 million refugees (half of whom are children) according to the United Nations. What began as part of the Arab Spring overthrowing dictators across the Arab world has turned into a bloody and relentless civil war. Now with reports of a massacre with chemical weapons, it seems increasingly likely that Western Powers will intervene in some form in the conflict. But is this the right decision? Are we compelled to fight on behalf of Syrian civilians or will it only make the problem worse?


There is a pretty solid argument for staying out of Syria. First of all, there is a lot we don’t know. We don’t know for sure who launched the chemical attacks (though the evidence is pointing towards Assad). We don’t know who exactly will replace Assad as the opposition is a muddled group of all sorts. Most importantly of all we don’t know what sort of reaction any military force will get. Will they be welcomed or attacked? Many people are opposed to sending soldiers to die in a war they can’t understand and won’t gain from. Memories of Iraq are strong on everyone’s mind and no one wants a repeat of that disaster. The last thing we want is to be caught in another quagmire which will only result in pointless deaths, wasted resources and strengthened militant Islamists.

The strongest argument against intervening (and the reason I was opposed until recently) is that it will make the conflict worse. Without a doubt, any invasion will involve bombings that kill civilians and destroy infrastructure. This will make the Syrian people worse off in the short run and in the best case scenario, the violent dies down and the total deaths is lowered, but in the worse case it prolongs and inflames a conflict where no one gains. War is not like the movies where the hero shoots the bad guys and no one gets hurt. Thousands will die in any intervention (action could be limited to just air strikes but this will probably not be as effective at ending the war and will still cause civilian deaths).


I am a peaceful person and oppose most wars, a view that is very common in Ireland. But let us imagine for a moment what war we would find acceptable. I’m sure almost everyone would agree that we have a responsibility to prevent genocide and mass murder as what happened in the Holocaust and Rwanda. It was to the international community’s shame that they did not intervene in Rwanda. What about a war against a brutal dictator slaughtering his own people? This seems like a justifiable war, both on moral grounds to punish the perpetrator and to prevent future massacres. The question thus becomes, does Syria meet the conditions of a just war?

One thing I learned in my study of the history of interventions is that there are no clear cut rules, but rather ambiguous and arbitrary lines. How many people must die before intervention is justified? Many of my friends believe the killing of 13 people in Bloody Sunday 1972 delegitimised the Northern Irish state yet thousands have been killed in Syria. We obviously cannot intervene in every conflict around the world (there are too many) but at what point does a conflict become so big that we cannot ignore it? How do we make the cost-benefit analysis so that more people are saved than killed in our intervention? Intervention is often done by countries with ulterior motives, for example the American invasion of Iraq had the liberation of the Iraqi people as a low priority. Many people distrust the Western powers due to their disgraceful history of imperialism. That is a fair point, but if we exclude every country that has a bloody past in the 3rd World, we are left with Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Iceland and a handful of small countries not capable of launching an invasion. Every country with a sizeable military has used it for massacres at some point in time. However, we cannot change the past but we can change the future.

We would all like if there were other options. We would all prefer if the Syrian people themselves could overthrow Assad without outside help. However dictators are very good at entrenching themselves and crushing the people until they are too weak to fight back. We would prefer if peaceful negoation was possible, but Assad has ruled that out, demanding unconditional surrender. Aiding the struggle from afar through the smuggling of funds and weapons is another option that could succeed without getting the West dragged into it, but that has been tried and Assad is still holding on.


It is ironic that when reading of Darfur or Rwanda or any other example of mass murder of innocent people, reports are full of condemnation of the international community for refusing to intervene. How could the world turn a blind eye to such suffering? Yet now, once the West is preparing to stop the attacks, the same people are suddenly condemning the West for intervening. Sometimes you are damned if you and damned if you don’t. If we fail to act then decades from now we will be denounced for our callous indifference to murder.

The method of intervention is important too. It would be best if it had UN approval and as wide international support as possible. However, Russia and China do not have the right to veto the conscience of the world and hold back necessary aid. We have a duty to protect the innocent civilians of the world regardless of the barriers and ignoring the massacres would be a greater crime than acting without the support of a Communist dictatorship and a questionably free country. Likewise the ideal situation would be to put Assad on trial in the International Criminal Court to provide justice to his victims and to strike fear in the hearts of dictators the world over. It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved by air strikes alone, it probably will require troops on the ground. This will be bloodier for the West, will certainly escalate the war, though it could be safer for civilians (troops are less likely to kill civilians and can offer better protection against the Syrian government army).


The simple fact is that Assad is too well entrenched to be removed by Syrians alone. If we continue to ignore the situation, the only result will be more civilian deaths and the probable remaining in power of a dictator with blood on his hands. The chemical gas attack has galvanised world opinion. Gas cannot be excused as the usual operation of a war, or a necessary device in quelling a rebellion. No, it is a deliberate attempt to exterminate as many people as possible oblivious to the number of innocent people who will die. It is a form of murder so brutal and horrible that it has been unofficially forbidden among world powers since WW1. Close your eyes and image you are walking through the town past all the corpses. Imagine you witnesses the chemical attack? Look at these photos taken after the chemical attack, do you think we can just ignore this? Would you still claim we should ignore the problem and let the murderers go unpunished?

Some people are suspicious that Assad would do something as stupid as use chemical gas and mutter darkly about a stitch up. But since when did dictators ever act rationally and logically? They all suffer from hubris and a belief in their invincibility. If using chemical gas is a stupid move that would only provoke Western intervention, can’t the same be said about all massacres of civilians? Probably Assad assumed that as he (and his father) has gotten away with many massacres before, the West would continue their policy of non-intervnetion and continue to ignore the problem. Two years of war has gradually worn down all sides commitment to human rights and numbed their view of bloodshed. Assad is probably losing patience with the advance of his troops and wants a speedy end to the war. There is evidence that chemical gas has been used in earlier attacks and the use has only been increasing.

There is a genuine fear about what will follow an intervention and many are worried that it will strengthen Al-Queda. However, not every Muslim with a gun is a member of Al-Queda and fall into a caricature of the suspicious Arabs who all hate the West. An intervention would raise the image of the West and show that we do not solely invade in order to steal people’s oil. Ignoring the problem could lead to a repeat of Afghanistan where the bloodiest and most vicious faction won out in the end after a decade of civil war. Intervention could help tip the balance towards the democratic forces. However none of this can be predicted in advance. During the Irish War of Independence, Sinn Fein was a confused muddle of factions comprising democrats, socialists, farmers, Catholic fanatics, traditionalists, bigots and future Fascists. I doubt anyone could have predicted that a stable and peaceful democratic state would emerge from this motley crew (and it took over a decade before politics did stabilise). The point is that revolution are always confused affairs with a wide range of different groups with different aims in temporary alliance against a common enemy. Eastern Europe took over a decade to come to terms with its revolution that overthrew Communism and some say they still have not.


At the end of the day, it comes down to how you view the world. Are we separate nationalities, spate people who should stay apart or are we all one? Are we all part of a common humanity where an attack on one is an attack on all? Does great power come with great responsibility and do we in the West have a Responsibility To Protect the weak and vulnerable in the world as a result of our privilege and power? If those were our houses bombed, our friends killed our neighbours oppressed by a dictator, would we want to world to turn its back and ignore us? Do we want to live in a world where mass slaughter is allowed without punishment and dictators can continue to sit on their blood soaked thrones? Or do we want to be part of a world that refuses to tolerate the gassing of innocent civilians and struggle to free the oppressed people of the world and help them fight for their freedom?

I know what my answer is, its up to you to decide what yours is.


Filed under Politics

21 responses to “Should We Intervene In Syria?

  1. There are good arguments for getting rid of Bashar al-Assad, just as there were good arguments for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But the invasion of Iraq was not for humanitarian purposes, and did not lead to a good result. I don’t think the war hawks of today are any different from the war hawks back then.

    In an alternate universe, an invasion of Syria led by a President Robert Nielsen might have a good result. I don’t think the actual existing U.S. government adheres to the same humane values as you do, and, if there is a war, I don’t think it would be the kind of war you envision.

    • “the invasion of Iraq was not for humanitarian purposes”
      That is the crucial difference. America has no ulterior motive in invading and nothing to gain. That is why it is not an imperialist invasion but rather one that is genuine about protecting civilians.

      Perhaps America does not have the best of intentions but we live in an imperfect world and therefore have to rely on imperfect actors.

  2. I don’t want to be patronising, but I know you’re still quite young. Maybe you have live through a series of interventions by Western powers where you feel that the most humane thing to do is for ‘us’ to ‘help’. And then sit and watch how sickening it is that our ‘help’ involves more deaths, and leaves a bigger mess than could be imagined, but ‘we’ have some good contracts with the new regime. Something should be done. But what and by whom? Certainly not bombing led by the usual suspects in the US and Europe.

    • Unfortunately the usual suspects are the only ones capable of launching an intervention. Does the US’ disgraceful history of foreign intervention mean it can never act to prevent mass murder ever again?

      This isn’t Iraq or Nicaragua. This isn’t a US planned invasion, but rather a conflict that America is doing everything it can to avoid, but is being dragged into. Dictators who use poison gas on their own people cannot be allowed to stay in power.

  3. You make some excellent points Robert and I too feel that if we can reliably prove that the Assad regime is responsible for gassing civilians then we do have an obligation to stop such atrocities.

    I think its worth pointing out here too that the phony war the U.S. and its allies perpetrated in Iraq has done more damage than most realize and has these years later left us tentative at best to intervene in other regions of the mideast where there are real needs, not imagined fears. Our handling of Iraq has left us fearful that such action will also prove more harmful than helpful in Syria if we do decide to go in and aid those people who are suffering there.

    • The war in Iraq has certainly done enormous damage to the US’ reputation and is the main reason why the current action is being met with so much suspicion. People mistrust the evidence given and fear years of slaughter like in Iraq. The legacy of Iraq makes many people prefer not to get involved with Syria at all.

  4. Paddy Crean

    Brilliant analysis, Robert. Unfortunately it can lead to one conclusion only; “analysis paralysis”.

    Unfortunately also, the anti-government movement in Syria overestimated their ability to overthrow their despotic rulers and their people are now paying the price.

    Any unilateral bellicose action by the so-called West (which cannot include us, if by “us” you mean Ireland) is so fraught as to be unthinkable. The only possible solution must come from the United Nations. Therein lies the rub!

    Those of us who saw the creation of that organisation were lead to believe at the time that it could be the institution that could save the world from future wars through the force of international determination to avoid future wars. This hope was destroyed from the very start by the creation of the undemocratic Security Council whose members were granted the power of frustrating world opinion by the use of the crippling Veto.

    Fire brigade actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or anywhere else simply shift the flames of war from one place to another and never seek to tackle the underlying combustibles that vie with each other between and within states.

    It is time the United Nations established laws governing the behaviour of its constituents backed up by legal and enforceable sanctions. The citizens of the world cannot continue to tolerate exposure to the immanent threat of mutual destruction by nuclear or chemical weapons. The time-honoured but discredited balance-of-power method for securing international peace is no longer applicable. Russia and China are working desperately to establish themselves as world powers to counterbalance the dominance of the USA. In the meantime the balance of terror is the only security available.

    The question is: how can the moral majority mobilise in order to exert its influence on the major world powers to reform the United Nations and forge it into an effective implement of peace?

    I have come to the realisation that the greatest implement of mass influence in the world is religion. Given the right motivation the combined religions of the world, in spite of their chequered past, could be the catalyst that is necessary to stiffen the moral backbone of the nations of the earth and lead the demand for a just global societIf they can’t do it, nothing else can.

    • I agree that United Nations would be the best forum for an intervention. Unfortunately China and Russia will veto any proposal. What right do two undemocratic countries have to prevent the rest of the world rescuing Syria from further massacres?

      What do you mean when you say religion could change things? Do you mean lobbying by organised religions? Religious armies? More belief among the people and leaders of the world?

      • I mean lobbying by organised religions, using the moral authority conferred on them by their respective followers. Most religions claim to be inspired by ideals of brotherhood and compassion (Some even support their inspirer’s advice to turn the other cheek!)

        What I am saying is that, in pursuit of such admirable aspirations, they should be using their combined voices in the interest of international peace and security, They should be educating their followers through their political representatives or rulers to exert moral pressure on the permanent members of the UN Security Council to remove their unethical power of veto and to allow the General Assembly to be the sole authority responsible for approving collective action for the maintenance of peace and security.

        • Don’t think that’s too likely. Unless its abortion or gay marriage, religions stay out of politics. I think they’re afraid of coming into disagreement with their flock (who they know don’t entirely buy the turn the other cheek policy)

          • Let us not be too dismissive, Robert. Not all religions stay out of politics; Muhammad himself was a master politician.
            The trouble is that world peace today is too important to be left in the hands of politicians alone. Their imperative of self-interest will outweigh any other motivation unless people of goodwill find a way to convince them that there is a better way.
            Pluralist action is needed for such a challenging mission..

  5. namnack

    Even if the collective human race didn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and had some rudimentary knowledge of history, we still couldn’t come up with a workable strategy to help a region like Syria that is is set on self-destruct. This conflict is not being played out in a vacuum and it’s certainly not an incident. I’m afraid there is simply nothing we can collectively do to prevent these things from happening. The human race has grown so ridiculously fast since we started to use fossil fuels that it never had a chance to adapt to the increasing, relative smaller environment in which it lives. And I really don´t see the difference between 500 killed by gas and 99.500 by non-chemical means.

    if we can’t collectively agree (and apparently we can’t, some of us are using it for Pete’s sake) on the banning of weapons of mass destruction (how many nuclear warheads does the US have again?) then enforcing some hypocritical, well intended agreement isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.

    The collateral (civilian, w/e) casualty number in Iraq will never be surpassed by the number of deaths that can be counted in Syria even if this is going to drag on for years to come.

    Apparently people are able to build, maintain, organize around and deploy these sorts of weapons against their own kind and see it as the best option available at such times and THAT is the problem.

    You don’t solve that, you just pray for the best and hope there’s another tomorrow tomorrow.

  6. Maybe Assad wants to provoke a (limited) attack by the United States. This would be his best way to regain the loyalty of the Syrian people and the sympathy of his fellow Arabs. I’m not sure this is so, and I have no evidence it is so, but it is an explanation that fits otherwise hard-to-explain facts.

    • Thats actually plausible. Unlikely, Assad certainly could play on strong Anti-American feelings and present himself as a patriot. This is why I dislike limited attacks, they fail to dislodge Assad and may not even weaken him.

  7. ronanwills

    I feel like the only people who can answer this are the people of Syria themselves. Do they want outside forces to intervene? Are the comfortable with the short-term civilian deaths that will result from an invasion? Ultimately it doesn’t matter at all what we, westerners sitting in comfort and safety behind out keyboards, think.

    • But unfortunately we cannot ask them or put it to a vote. The uprising is an indication that there is huge anger at Assad and probably a majority want to get rid of him. However, dictators do not listen to popular will so even if a vast majority wants to get rid of him, with the backing of the military he can remain in power.

  8. If I were a Syrian, I would recall the recent history of the Middle East and think that even though I wouldn’t want to be ruled by Bashar al-Assad, I would want even less for my country to descend into anarchy or be invaded by foreigners

    • I say after decades of repression they are probably desperate to be free (though of this is all speculation). I actually was once speaking to someone who had been in Syria and he made an emotional appeal for international support.

  9. John

    Basically I agree that standing by to watch a rogue dictator massacre his own countrymen is not OK. Insufficient UN intervention in Rwanda was not OK. UN / NATO military intervention in Libya and Kosovo was not wonderful, but OK.

    However, I have some concerns re: Syria:
    1. There may in fact be diplomatic solutions. Russia is a key arms supplier and ally to Assad. There needs to be a strategy to exert moral pressure on Russia to end their support of a very repugnant regime. However, no progress could be expected to be made unless Russian fears of losing naval access to the port of Latakia in case of Assad’s collapse are addressed. So, what sort of long-term outcomes would provide common ground for the great powers? Could this vision be supported by neighbouring countries? By Syrian rebel groups and Alawites?
    2. It seems unlikely to me that the long term outcome is going to be a united Syria. I doubt the various warring factions would be able to trust any one government to rule impartially. Balkanisation along Alawite / Shia, Sunni, Kurdish (and maybe other) lines seems to me, inevitable. The various nations contributing armaments should instead contribute the money to a fund to facilitate a “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, the rebuilding, and a lot of peacekeeping at the new borders.
    3. If there is too much resistance to a negotiated peace among the various players, and the civil war continues indefinitely, perhaps the most pragmatic strategy would be to support only very select rebel groups, ones who are reliably progressive, to enable them to survive the civil war, while egging the others on to do battle to oblivion.

    My short-run bottom line is I agree with the Obama approach, but I would not count on a few missile attacks changing much other than making the relationship with Russia more tense and maybe provoking a Syrian terrorist strike on USA. It might not even stop the use of chemical weapons.

    • 1 I wish there was hope for diplomatic avenues but we have had 2 years to find one with little luck. It is unlikely that we will find one.

      2 The Syrian rebels are certainly divided but so are all rebel groups. All revolutions lead to fears of division and chaos afterwords. Balkinisations is possible, but I don’t think it is the likely result.

      3 I agree that missile strikes alone won’t solve the crisis and Syria is far too divided for that. That’s why I think it will take troops on the ground to control the various groups and support a stable future.

  10. Christopher Chennaux

    How do you explain and justify the following [and one could go on…] that UK Export Finance has sold weapons to some of the worst dictators of the past 40 years – and had a role to play in the most serious chemical weapons abuses since the Vietnam war.

    Jubilee Debt Campaign has released new information which confirms that the British government effectively armed both sides during the Iran-Iraq war – one of the Middle East’s most bloody conflicts.

    Britain had been happily selling weapons to Saddam Hussein, our ally during his war against the new Islamic Republic, in the early 1980s. The UK government also allowed the sale of the goods needed to make a chemical plant which the US later claimed was essential to Saddam’s chemical weapons arsenal, with the full knowledge that the plant was likely to be used to produce nerve gas. Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and against civilians within his own country in 1988, killing tens of thousands.

    This is old news, but we now also know that until the fall of the Shah in 1979, Britain also sold Rapier missiles and Chieftain tanks to Iran’s autocratic regime – weapons that were undoubtedly also used in the Iran-Iraq war.

    Both sets of arms were effectively paid for by the British taxpayer, as both Iraq and Iran defaulted on the loans given by Britain, and they became part of Iraq and Iran’s debt. Though Iran still “owes” £28m to Britain, plus an undisclosed amount of interest, this didn’t stop Britain guaranteeing £178m of loans to Iran to buy British exports for gas and oil developments in the mid 2000s, thus breaking its own rules.

    This new information adds to a litany of such cases – supporting arms sales to the brutal General Suharto of Indonesia, both Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt and military juntas in Ecuador and Argentina, the latter using its British weapons to invade the Falkland Islands… (quote from research on the Internet reliable sources)

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