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Intervention in Syria Is Morally Justified—and Completely Impractical

This is a contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.

In trying to think through what outsiders should do to stop the killing in Syria, the only unambiguous issue is the moral one. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is perpetrating crimes against humanity upon his own people. The “responsibility to protect,” unanimously adopted at the U.N. in 2005, stipulates that when states fail to protect their own citizens from mass atrocities, other states have an affirmative responsibility to act. Only a gross cynic—say, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov—could argue that Assad has not triggered this international obligation. An intervention would be morally justified, just as it was in Libya.

So far, therefore, I agree with Leon Wieseltier, who argues for such an intervention. But this is not a classroom; and calls for action have to clear both a prudential hurdle and a practical one. 

The prudential problem has to do with legitimacy. It is not a good idea to invade another country, and especially for a Western military to invade a Muslim country, unless it has the approval of the neighborhood. Legitimacy is not the same thing as legality: Even former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted that the NATO intervention in Kosovo, while “illegal” because undertaken without Security Council approval, was nevertheless “legitimate.” The Libya intervention enjoyed widespread legitimacy because it was approved not only by the Security Council but by the Arab League, whose blessing prevented Libya and its defenders from discrediting the intervention as an act of Western neo-colonialism. George Bush and his merry band of crusaders believed that American action was self-legitimating, but the world didn’t agree; and in Iraq the U.S. paid a very high price for placing this crown upon its own head. A U.S.-led intervention in Syria without the support of either the Security Council or the Arab League would look more like Iraq than Libya. It wouldn’t be morally wrong, but it might be very bad policy.

The lack of international support would give any actor serious pause; but what dooms the project—at least for the moment—are the low odds of success, and the high odds of unintended consequence. In Libya, NATO airstrikes enforced a “cordon sanitaire” behind which the opposition could hide, and organize. Syria, by contrast, is a patchwork, with both regime opponents and military forces in close proximity across the country. Where would you bomb? How could you intervene without killing large numbers of the civilians you were seeking to protect? In Libya, outsiders could rightly say that they were intervening on behalf of the Libyan people, who stood almost as one against Muammar Qaddafi and his regime. This is not at all the case in Syria, where non-Sunni minority groups deeply fear a Sunni takeover. A poll conducted by the Doha Debates in mid-December found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to remain in power. What’s more, Syria has, as Libya did not, the capacity to do immense harm not only to its own people but to its neighbors—including Israel—in order to make the price of intervention intolerable. 

Military intervention holds out the possibility of putting a swift end to suffering—but also of increasing that suffering, without achieving the goal the victims seek. Coercive but non-military alternatives have the disadvantage of allowing the violence to continue, at least in the short term; but they still may be preferable. When Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Cote D’Ivoire, massacred his opponents rather than accept the results of an election he lost, the U.N. and a regional African body slowly tightened an economic vise on him until his regime collapsed. He killed a lot of people along the way, but he was ultimately stopped. Are such measures available in Syria? Maybe. Western nations and the Arab League should expand and tighten sanctions on Assad and his circle in order to persuade fence-sitters in the business class to abandon the regime; they should, as a recent report from the Center on American Progress suggests, encourage defections from the Syrian military, including through the establishment of a safe haven in Turkey or Jordan.

Should they also equip the Free Syrian Army, as France and Qatar did with the Libyan rebels? At the moment, the FSA is a collection of autonomous militias with little central direction and virtually no coordination with the political opposition; arming them would be a prescription for deeper chaos. But if the civilian and military leadership can organize itself into something like a proto-government—which they might be able to do in a safe haven over the border—than that calculus may change. (It may be a moot point, since reportedly Arab neighbors are already arming the rebels.)

One thing we know is that these conflicts change their character from week to week. Assad’s forces have begun killing in bigger bunches. Military defections are growing, and the conflict is increasingly taking on the character of a civil war. That may be just what Assad wants, since it appears to produce a moral equivalency between the sides; but civil war, as Wieseltier notes, is also a sign of the grim determination of opponents. It is possible, in short, that the circumstances which now preclude military intervention will change, and thus that the surrounding politics will change as well. If Assad loses key sources of support, defections grow, and the opposition unites, the Arab League might, for example, work with Turkey to establish a safe haven inside Syria. Any such area would need military protection so as not to turn into Srebrenica. And then an intervention in Syria would look like something that one could reasonably support—much more like Libya than Iraq.

James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation.