Eight things to consider before intervening in Syria

Before any Western intervention in the Syrian conflict, eight key issues need to be considered – from the goals of intervention and the legal issue to the regional impact and the possibility of a diplomatic alternative.

1. What are the goals of intervention?

  • All statements coming from the western leaders most likely to undertake military action  (US, UK and France) suggest a narrow focus on chemical weapons (CW), rather than action designed to sway the overall trajectory of the conflict in Syria. PM Cameron went as far as to say, “this is not even about the Syria conflict. It is about the use of chemical weapons.”  On the overall conflict, all continue to suggest that ultimately a political outcome is needed.
  • Beyond a perceived sense of the need to ‘do something’, the intention seems to be to send a signal on CW to deter further use in the Syria arena and reinforce a global norm alongside an apparent goal of restoring western credibility. Washington in particular seems to have become convinced that non-action on its own red line would imply a presidency that has replaced gung-ho with gun-shy to an extent that might undermine global assessments of American willingness to deploy hard power as well as generating criticism from inside the DC bubble.
  • Given the dominance of the CW prism in western messaging, the potential consequences of military action for the Syria conflict and for a dangerously polarised and destabilised region are being paid insufficient attention. Less than one per cent of casualties in Syria are even being attributed to CW claims – if there is a plan involving military action to reduce the suffering of Syrians and improve the situation, then presumably that would be aired irrespective of proof of CW use. The assumption therefore has to be that no good plan exists. Nevertheless and as is known to decision-makers, any action will have consequences well beyond the CW issue – so any proposed action should also be measured against broader criteria of prospective implications for Syria and broader regional issues (including sectarian escalation, refugee flows and instability in Iraq and Lebanon, radicalisation and diplomacy with Iran).
  • The West will be consciously trying to impact the Syria military balance if there is a strike – but there is a danger that the options under consideration could make the situation worse in Syria, in the region and for the prospects of crisis management diplomacy. The US Chair of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey set out his reservations regarding military action to Senator Levin on July 19th here and Congressman Engel on August 19th here (before the Ghouta incident). Nothing has changed militarily since Ghouta and Dempsey’s letters remain the most authoritative open source assessment that should caution against Western military engagement.

2. The chemical weapons dilemma

  • If CW have been used in Syria, then preventing its further use in no way suggests that Syrian casualties and suffering will be reduced, given that at least 99% of deaths are not attributable to CW. It would therefore appear legitimate to question whether preserving the norm on CW should trump all other considerations on the impact for Syria and the region in driving our policy.
  • There are two options for addressing CW in the Syria context – deterrence or control of CW stocks. In General Dempsey’s letter to Senator Levin July 19th he devotes a paragraph to what it would take to “control chemical weapons” (that can be downloaded here). The conclusion being the necessary deployment of a no-fly zone, missile strikes, and “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites.”  We are led to believe that such an option is not under consideration; therefore CW will not be controlled.
  • That leaves deterrence – the proximate justification for any potential strike and an argument that may in a narrow sense be vindicated. But there are no guarantees that Assad will be deterred, that there are not better options for achieving deterrence, that the negatives of a strike will not outweigh this potential positive or that deterrence on CW is where the preponderance of attention should be focused given that 99% of casualties are non-CW related. These points are further explored in the rest of this memo.
  • Another CW danger in the Syria arena is likely to be the scenario of such weapons falling into the hands of irregular and notably AQ affiliated or AQ-Style salafi jihadist groups. There are good reasons that the West has sought to avoid a total collapse of the Syria state, an ill-considered military option could undermine that goal and accentuate the danger of CW capabilities reaching multiple users.

3. The problem with evidence

  • We may now be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons. Yet that determination has not been made in a sufficiently robust way. We must at least take seriously and acknowledge that there is a degree of conviction with which some non-western actors are making a counter case – whether that be in Russia, China, Iran or elsewhere in the region and the world, notably on a ‘cui bono’ (who benefits) basis.
  • The suggested irrefutability of the western claim is undermined by the sense that we are being hasty and rushing to conclusions and that we have pre-determined the outcome of the UN inspections currently being undertaken by not giving those sufficient time. It is worth remembering that the UN inspectors on the ground, a development that the West pushed for hard at the UN, are ostensibly in Syria to review claims of CW use from five months ago, western leaders would therefore appear to be on shaky ground in claiming that an investigation of CW use from five days ago is too little, too late.
  • Given that the backers of the Assad government in Moscow and Tehran have rushed to condemn CW use a better strategy might be to pursue a stronger evidentiary base. It will not be easy for Assad to use or use again CW on a mass scale and in ways that would be ever-more detectable under these circumstances.
  • Such an approach to inspection missions of ‘moving the goalposts’ also carries the danger of sending an unhelpful signal to Iran at this particularly delicate and potentially hopeful moment in diplomatic efforts with Iran.

4. The legality challenge

  • The legality of military strikes against Syria in the absence of authorisation by the UN Security Council is at best questionable. There does not appear to be any basis to claim that military action is being undertaken in self-defence. While the use of chemical weapons undoubtedly violates international law, this does not mean that a coalition of countries has the right to take punitive action without UNSC authorisation. Therefore the only possible legal basis for action lies in the disputed notion of humanitarian intervention.
  • There are precedents for military action without UNSC authorisation to prevent harm to civilians (most notably NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and the creation of safe havens for refugees in Iraq in 1991-2 are the two most recent examples). However few states have explicitly claimed that military intervention for humanitarian purposes can be lawful, and a large number of states have rejected the notion. While the UK asserted a right of humanitarian intervention in the case of Kosovo, the US took a more cautious approach in describing the action as justified on a one-off basis. Moreover at least one supporting factor in the case of Kosovo (the support of the relevant regional organisation) is arguably lacking in this case, as the Arab League has not supported military intervention, despite its condemnation of the use of chemical weapons.
  • Whatever legal arguments are advanced, an attack on Syria would inevitably fuel the belief around the world that western powers are willing to act outside the UNSC when they wish. Military action would help reinforce the international norm against the use of CW, but arguably undermine the norm against the use of force without UNSC backing. Every time that western countries bypass or act outside of the UN Security Council we undermine international legality and collective security, which is not in our long term interest.

5. The military dynamic of western intervention

  • All the signalling from western leaders is that any military action would be limited in scope and duration. That is easy to say and is backed up by a lack of appetite displayed in public opinion polls, western militaries and even by political leaders to be stuck in another prolonged Middle Eastern military engagement.
  • But as General Dempsey quoted in his letter, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is harder to avoid.” What if evidence arises of new CW use? We would certainly be incentivising a Syrian opposition whose main goal for a long time now has been to draw in western military intervention. They would do everything to make claims of new atrocities and to provoke the Government. What if regional and other backers of the Assad regime respond by escalating their own involvement? There will be an understandable temptation to recalibrate a prohibition on CW use into a general prohibition on “killing too many innocent people at once.”
  • Standing firm on any strike being a one-off is not only difficult, it can also be self-defeating if the goal is deterrence and restoration of credibility – it can end up making one look weak.

6. Impact on the trajectory of the Syria conflict

  • Despite western protestation to this being limited, proportional and CW-focused, the targets will undoubtedly be Syrian government military assets so there will be a direct impact on the trajectory of the fighting in Syria and the balance of power. But not in a decisive way – for that the intervention would have to be massive and ownership assumed of the Syria crisis and its aftermath, something most western politicians wisely continue to oppose.
  • In that context, it is hard to imagine but we must take into account that this can get worse for Syrians, even more destabilising for the region and can generate new threats to western security.
  • There is a great unpredictability to how the regime, the various rebel factions and the regional actors will respond to any western strike. The regime has not yet unleashed all the firepower it has. The rebels will undoubtedly see this as an opening to a more extensive western military intervention and will calibrate their actions and PR efforts accordingly.
  • In terms of domestic opinion in Syria, which is still a relevant factor, it is hard to see how the regime does not benefit with its public if and when American missiles dispatched from offshore locations appear over their skies, especially if there are civilian casualties.
  • Finally and crucially, how will this impact the flow of refugees? There are already reports of a significant uptick in refugees crossing the border, including an accelerated departure of the business community whose presence at least keeps some kind of economy ticking over. This would come on top of an already devastating and dramatic refugee crisis that is stretching the coping mechanisms of neighbouring states and has already seen an accelerated number of refugees from Kurdish areas into Iraq in recent weeks. The possible impact on the refugee situation cannot be a secondary consideration.

7. Impact on the region

  • Credibility matters for the West as much as for anyone else, including the adherence to red lines. It might be the case that the Assad regime is deterred and makes certain recalculations regarding the overall trajectory of the conflict in response to western action. Likewise Iran and even Russia but that is far from guaranteed and probably belongs in the ‘unlikely’ category.
  • The Syria conflict is the epicentre of a regional conflict but the current western debate on Syria and a potential strike is taking place absent a broader strategic conversation on prioritising what matters most for western interests in the Middle East. The default position is to continue to see the emasculation of Iran as the primary concern despite growing evidence that the greatest threat from the region is a cycle of sectarian escalation with Syria at its core that this is fuelling radicalisation, which is giving rise to unprecedented chaos and new ungoverned spaces, that is threatening to push Lebanon and Iraq deeper into the abyss and to generate a new momentum for anti-western jihadism.
  • An attempt to rethink the region should therefore focus on a strategy, the centre point of which is regional de-escalation, requiring more, not less, diplomacy with those with whom we disagree both in the region and beyond, notably Iran and Russia. Such a strategy would notably push any opening for rapprochement/dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, rather than encouraging maximalism on either side. It is hard to see how a military escalation can serve this goal; it is though easy to see how it would further squeeze the space for sectarian de-escalation.
  • In thinking through response options, significant weight must be given to consequences regarding new diplomatic openings with Iran and to what this might do to the formative stage of the Rouhani Presidency. 

8. A diplomatic alternative?

  • There is some speculation that any limited western military action could serve as a pivot to a renewed diplomatic effort. For now such speculation appears optimistic. But a diplomatic push would be the right approach before any strike and while making it more difficult, it would be the right thing to do after such action. If the intention is to redouble diplomacy post-strike we would question the logic in that but hope for the diplomatic component to be pursued with greater vigour and courage than in the past.
  • As we have previously argued, most western policy debate, has, until now, navigated between military-lite and diplomacy-lite options. Military-lite is what is under consideration now; diplomacy-lite is not to bite the bullet on accepting that there will be a role for the Assad government during any transition or that one needs to include Iran. Going all-in on diplomacy is what we should be doing. It was hinted at in May 2013 when Kerry and Lavrov first announced a Geneva II gathering but was largely placed in abeyance ever since. Some of that diplomatic failure is attributable to how ineffective the West has been with its own allies in the region and with the Syrian opposition (partly a creature of the West’s invention).  A planned meeting this week on Syria between the US and Russia has already been postponed and the UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been marginalised. That needs to change and a more concerted and blunt diplomatic effort needs to be made, including to bring the opposition to the negotiating table and to engage Iran on Syria and not just on the nuclear file. It is hard to see how a military strike enhances the prospects for diplomacy.
  • In the immediate term, if there is a diplomatic alternative it might include: (a) to work to expand at the UN the mandate of the inspectors regarding the current allegations of CW use, pushing Russia on this issue will play to an area in which they are on the defensive – rather than where their position is stronger, namely in opposing military force; (b) to thereby establish a clearer evidentiary basis on CW use in advance of further discussions at the Security Council; and (c) this would build on the positions that Russia, China and Iran have taken against CW use and for greater evidence, in order to push Assad on inspectors; (d) a second phase for such an approach could try to promote options for CW oversight in Syria as well as the broader diplomatic effort.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow
President, US/Middle East Project

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