Middle East Redux: Syria as Another Intervention? Another Disaster?


by Fiona Gjoni


Executive Summary

  • Syria is in turmoil and the world is watching to see what will happen to this state. Many political commentators already have declared that Syria needs help or else it could become a failed state.
  • The repercussions of a failed state in the Middle East would be massive, especially after the Arab Spring already caused waves in the region.
  • Failed States become an international problem, and it is therefore prudent to monitor states in a position such as Syria. Issues concerning how states could and should act or intervene, however, are hotly debated.
  • States are essentially selfish and do not tend to act ‘selflessly’ unless there are at least some gains to be made, whether that be through wealth, trade, or power and influence.
  • Parallels between Iraq and Syria are quite apparent; Iraq is a very recent example of a possible outcome of invading Syria.
  • Other examples of foreign powers invading/involving themselves in the domestic affairs of another state include Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and Lebanon.
  • These examples of (western) foreign interference establish the trend of ‘outsiders’ meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.
  • Although action is sometimes not the right decision for the situation, there are examples of intervention being needed and states not acting as there is no benefit to them by doing so.
  • Through analysing these situations, a better understanding of how to tackle Syria can be formed.


Currently the United Nations (UN) and the international community are in crisis mode. The situation in Syria can no longer have a blind-eye turned to it. The UN and Kofi Annan’s Peace Plan has failed decisively. The ambitious plan to end the violence and control of Bashar al-Assad has proven to be disastrous, particularly considering that the violence continued — from both the government and the rebel groups — while the UN envoy was in the state ‘enforcing’ the plan. This was after the agreed implementation of the Peace Plan. The recently failed Resolution Draft of October 2011 is widely considered to be the next obvious plan of action in securing Syria’s future. States including Russia and China, however, continue to use their veto powers to block resolutions such as the drafted Resolution of 2011. The main concerns over that Resolution was that it essentially aimed to intervene in Syria. This causes concern, as the international community has a history of intervening in sovereign states’ affairs. Examples of such events occurring within the Middle East include Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and Lebanon. This pattern is worrying as the states being invaded never seem to recover fully from the effects of intervention and, more often than not, the states intervening have ulterior motives. Another more alarming trend is that the invading states tend to be western powers, invariably led by the United States. Essentially, states such as Russia and China are worried about the invasion of states becoming an international ‘norm’. They fear that history will repeat itself. The most recent examples of states being invaded are Iraq and Afghanistan; the most controversial case, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is examined in detail in this article.

What is happening in Syria, and why has it led to a ‘Syrian crisis’?

The Syrian uprising took place in March 2011, when anti-government protestors took to the streets nationwide to demand changes to their country and to demand President Bashar al-Assad step down as leader. Initially, the spark that ignited the conflict was when teenagers from the southern city of Deraa were arrested and then tortured for graffiti of an anti-government nature being written on the walls of their school. Leading to local protests and clashes with police, several people were killed. The local protests in Deraa then led to the nationwide demonstrations. The Syrian crisis is considered a flow-on effect of the Arab Spring, which saw several tyrannical rulers deposed, and changed a great deal of states within the region in the process. The Arab Spring that took erupted in 2011 still is showing itself in Syria and currently decisions are being made with regards to Syria and the possible solutions that could ease the tension and resolve the crisis. But there is no firm direction. The UN Security Council has made Resolutions 2042 and 2043, which call for all violence to end. In a UNSC meeting in October 2011, a resolution was drafted calling for a ceasefire and end of violence by all sides, as well as ‘… an inclusive Syrian-led political process’. The draft failed because it was vetoed by permanent members Russia and China on the grounds that it represented a likely threat to Syria’s sovereignty.

Special Envoy for the UN Kofi Annan and his Six Point Plan have shown that, when there is no threat and no fear of repercussions, Assad will do as he pleases mainly due to the support he receives in the form of Russia’s and China’s reluctance to invade another state. This means that any policy adoption by the UNSC must be a strong and firm stance, as this decision will be crucial to the Syrian people particularly and the Middle East more generally. The peace plan consisted of well-thought out proposals, designed to pursue a path that would stabilise the state and protect its citizens. The result was that the Syrian government accepted the Envoy into the country and allowed the supervisory mission. Currently this policy has not been put into action. This is largely due to the continued fighting between the rebel groups and government forces, and, as the recent Houla massacres in June clearly demonstrate, neither side can be relied upon to uphold the ceasefire. The current policy that the UNSC has adopted does not seem to be working, leading to calls for alternative strategies. One possible suggestion is an intervention in Syria, in particular a military intervention, which it would be hoped would lead to the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Many states are pushing for this action, and may do so outside of the UNSC channels.

Parallels with other invasions

Iraq is a recent (and ongoing) example of foreign intervention. The invasion was led by the United States and the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. The importance of this invasion is its stark contrast to Syria, which is a divided country under the rule of a minority leader; this could lead to violent demonstrations against the minorities if Assad is overthrown. The opposition are not a unified force, they are fighting for control amongst themselves, and they are fighting for different reasons. Iraq was very much the same: Saddam Hussein was a minority leader; and the country was divided and full of insurgents and fighting among various groups within the state. Hussein was a Sunni Muslim, with the Sunnis being one of the minority groups in Iraq, and since his demise they have been the victims of violent attacks by the Shi’ites, who are the majority in Iraq. The difference between Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein is that Assad is a popular leader within Syria, as Assad has the support of populous and important cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Assad also has support of most mosques, schools, and an overwhelming majority of the armed forces. These factors, however, do not consider the wider-reaching implications of intervention and invasion. The idea of sovereignty is a long-standing principle, but one that today seems to be applicable only for western states or major powers. Syria is a sovereign state and, therefore, in principle the domestic affairs of the state should not be of concern to other states. This is the stance of states such as Russia and China, who disagree with involvement — especially military involvement — in Syria’s uprising.

The Westphalian principles are a concern when intervening/invading other states is considered. This principle includes the right of self-determination and non-intervention into another state’s internal affairs. It appears that the western contingency of the international community views these principles as only applying to fellow western states (and, of course, major world powers such as Russia and China). This bias towards western states is exhibited in the 1953 coup of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq of Iran. He was overthrown as he was not seen by the United States and Britain to be ‘pro-western’. This was mainly because he wanted to nationalise the oil revenue to keep profits within Iran.  Again, this compares with Syria because Assad is considered not ‘pro-western’, particularly due to Syrian-Iranian relations being so friendly. Iraq also was in the same position, for Hussein started the 1991 Gulf War and thus acted outside of the US’ favour; consequently, he was deemed to pose an unacceptable threat. A concern here is that in the situation with Iran, the United States and its western allies have a history of negative relations. This seems to be a theme in all states that are invaded or have some form of intervention. Afghanistan is another example of this storied history among western states; it is a primary example of the change in the relationship from positive to negative, while demonstrating a state’s willingness to act in its own self-interest. During the Cold War, Afghanistan was used in a proxy war between the Soviets and Americans. In 2001, Washington’s utilization of the ‘Global War on Terror’ and accompanying argument that Al-Qaeda was using Afghanistan as a base, saw US forces invade Afghanistan in an attempt to rid the country of terrorists and the Taliban. Yet, the United States originally trained and funded the ‘Arab Afghans’ whom mostly became members of Al-Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden. At that time, it had been in American interests to side with the Arab Afghans fighting the Soviets and Washington was concerned with the spread of communism.

From a humanitarian perspective, however, as active and responsible members of the international community states must act. The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP or R2P) principle states clearly that there is a responsibility by those in the international community to assist states in fulfilling their Responsibility to Protect. The responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing all are included under this mandate of the UN General Assembly. It clearly states that, if a state either fails or is the perpetrator of the crime, then it falls to the international community to take measures against the state in question. Usually, the UN Security Council would be the body that would make the decision and then have to enforce the resolution. Due to the veto power that the permanent members hold, however, there may be another ‘War on Terror’ and a Coalition of the Willing if the UNSC does not agree and approve an action on the Syrian crisis. There already are calls for the United States to use its muscle, together with other willing states, and intervene in Syria to depose the regime. The principles outlined in Responsibility to Protect are designed to legitimize the international community’s authority to act in this manner, in situations such as the current crisis in Syria. Remembering that the R2P principle has been implemented in the General Assembly, now it needs to be implemented in the UNSC so action can take place.

Currently, it seems unlikely that the UNSC will be able to pass any resolutions that suggest intervention, as the situation has not reached a level of atrocity that would ensure action by outside states. Situations in states such as Rwanda and even Lebanon reveal a tendency by states still not to act (although the Rwandan genocide occurred before the implementation of the R2P principles). The lack of a firm procedure in these instances indicates that this principle is more of a theory.

The way forward from here

Despite the growing momentum for invasion or intervention of some sort, other options need to be explored. As demonstrated by the lack of intervention in Rwanda, in some instances, particularly when evidence of genocide is overwhelming, other states have a responsibility to act. This, however, does not give the international community the free will to intervene whenever and however it deems necessary. It has been estimated that over 10,000 people have been killed due to the uprising in Syria, but however callous it sounds there must be lines drawn as to when to intervene, particularly when planning to do so militarily. Syria is in a revolution and the Syrian president is acting how he, as the leader of the country, sees fit. That may not necessarily be the right path, but at the moment we need to step away from the situation and look at it fully. Currently there are accusations that Turkey is supporting the rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army, in order to assure that the president is deposed. Such claims may not be true, but outside influence by governments needs to stop. Currently, there are calls for the United States and other states to supply the rebels with weapons and funds, if they are not already doing so. As these groups are not organised and are fighting amongst themselves, however, that may lead to even more problems within Syria. Libya and Iraq are cases of the after effects of invasion (in the case of Iraq) and military interference (in the case of Libya). Both states now are experiencing a period of instability, and not only political turmoil but also social unrest. Libya, however, managed to have very little foreign interference except in the form of sanctions and NATO air bombings. The after effects of very little involvement are showing as the transitional government is struggling to maintain control. Afghanistan is another example of a state bordering on collapse. These states are already, or are in the process of being left to rebuild, many of these states cannot be ignored after initial issue is resolved as invasion and interference into another state cause long term problems and instability. There other ways to deal with this situation in Syria, and military invasion should not be one of them for the time being mainly because other examples of invasion and interference have already demonstrated the long term adverse effects on the stability of the state in question. Peaceful intervention for humanitarian reasons is an avenue that should be taken prior to an invasion, and there are many other avenues to attempt before they are all taken off the table.


Selected further reading:

Abrams, E 2012, Debating U.S. Options in Syria, Council on Foreign Relations, <http://www.cfr.org/syria/debating-us-options-syria/p27402>.

Ajami, F 2012, ‘The Arab spring at one: a year of living dangerously’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 91, no. 2, p. 56, Expanded Academic ASAP Database.

Aljazeera 2012, Syria urged to implement peace plan, Aljazeera, <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/04/2012417184936512691.html>.

Alterman, J 2012, Syria: U.S. Policy Options, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), <http://csis.org/files/ts120419_alterman.pdf>.

Blick, Andrew, 2005, How to go to war: A handbook for democratic leaders, Politico Publishing, Great Britain.

BBC News: Africa 2012, Libya Profile, BBC News, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13754897>.

BBC News: Middle East 2012, Houla: How a massacre unfolded, BBC News, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18233934>.

BBC News: Middle East 2012, Syria conflict: Annan warns ‘all-out war’’, BBC News, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18309083>.

BBC News: Middle East 2004, ‘Al-Qaeda’s origins and links’ , BBC News, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1670089.stm>.

International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICR2P) 2012, Crisis in Syria, International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, <http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/crisis-in-syria>.

Jones, B, 2012, The options in Syria, Foreign Policy, <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/10/The_Options_in_Syria>.

Lynch, M 2012, No Military option in Syria, Foreign Policy, <http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/01/17/no_military_options_in_syria>.

United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 2009, Implementing the responsibility to protect, United Nations general Assembly, <http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/implementing%20the%20rtop.pdf>.

UNSC Department of Public Information 2012, Security Council fails to adopt draft resolution on Syria as Russian Federation, China veto text supporting Arab League’s proposed peace plan, UNSC, <http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10536.doc.htm>.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 2012, The situation in the Middle East: resolution 2042 (2012), United Nations Security Council, <http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N12/295/28/PDF/N1229528.pdf?OpenElement>.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 2012, The situation in the Middle East: resolution 2043 (2012), United Nations Security Council, <http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N12/305/91/PDF/N1230591.pdf?OpenElement>.

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Fiona Gjoni, Middle East Redux: Syria as Another Intervention? Another Disaster? Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/middle-east-redux

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