Monsters to Destroy: Top 7 Reasons the US could not have forestalled Syrian Civil War

by Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The interventionist temptation, muted since the Iraq imbroglio, is now returning. Sec. Clinton’s team are already talking about taking steps to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from office as soon as they get into the White House. An excellent and principled NYT columnist called the non-intervention in Syria President Obama’s worst mistake.

I understand the impulse. Who can watch the carnage in Syria and not wish for Someone to Do Something? But I beg to differ with regard to US intervention. We forget now how idealistic the rhetoric around the US intervention in Vietnam was. Johnson wanted to save a whole society from the Communist yoke. Our idealist rhetoric can blind us to the destruction we do (the US probably killed 1 to 2 million Vietnamese peasants, recalling Tacitus’ (d. after 117 CE) remark about the Pax Romana, “and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”–atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.)

1. There was no UN Security Council consensus on intervention in 2011 and after, and so no authorization for the use of force. In 2012 at a policy meeting, I pressed a French diplomat whether there wasn’t a way to interdict weapons shipped to the regime (which was using heavy military weapons on peaceful protesters in 2011 and 2012). He said that given the lack of authorization for the use of force, arms-bearing ships headed to Latakia could only be boarded if they were foolish enough to come into the territorial waters of a state willing to take them on (none have). Every time the US intervenes in a country with no UNSC authorization and no issue of self-defense, it further degrades the rule of law. Other countries still cite Bush’s invasion of Iraq as justification for their acts of aggression.

2. Civil wars like that in Syria are forms of micro-aggression. Fighting happens in back alleys and neighborhoods where no outsider understands the terrain. The US had 160,000 troops in Iraq in 2006-2007 when Iraqis fought a civil war that ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad and turned it into a Shiite city. So many thousands of people were killed each month that Baghdad police had to establish a morning corpse patrol. If Iraq was occupied and run by Americans but it still had excess mortality of hundreds of thousands, why does anyone think that a much more limited US intervention in Syria could forestall death on this scale? I am a little afraid that the widespread underestimation of civilian excess mortality in Iraq is producing the wrong impression here. Its death toll was similar to that of Syria. I also think it isn’t realized that US troops don’t know the language and can’t tell one player from another unless they are specially trained small special forces units. And, they are targets for suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. When the US troops stopped patrolling major Iraqi cities in summer of 2009 the number of bombings and civilian casualties actually went down, because their patrols had been a target.

3. Short of US troops, people have advocated the establishment of safe zones for displaced civilians. But those zones would not stay safe from regime troops or fundamentalist militias unless they were protected by military force. So safe zones are actually a prescription for the insertion of infantry battalions to guard them. The no-fly-zone over the Kurds in Iraq only worked because the Kurds had a military force, the Peshmerga, that could take advantage of US air cover. Without US military protection on the ground, the so-called safe zones would be car-bombed or subjected to artillery barrages or bombed from the sky.

4. Hillary Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone in Syria was impractical because of no. 1 above– no UNSC authorization for the use of force. Moreover, the Syrian military had good anti-aircraft systems. Unless you bombed all those batteries intensively at the start you’d just be shot down. So a ‘no-fly-zone’ is not a minor intervention but a very major one. Now that the Russian air force is flying in Syria, a no-fly zone for regime planes is completely impractical.

5. I supported the UNSC no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, but was dismayed to find that it soon became a NATO mission and then it soon became replaced by another policy entirely– bombing Tripoli and trying to change the regime. Critics forget that the initial resolution just wanted to protect civilians in places like Zintan from Gaddafi’s helicopter gunships. I perceived that once the no-fly zone was implemented, there were enormous political pressures on NATO generals to achieve a tangible victory– hence the bombing of Tripoli (which isn’t exactly the same as a no-fly zone). Then because the mission was transmogrified into regime change from above, the militias never demobilized. That there were no foreign ground troops was a plus in some ways, but it did also mean that no one was responsible for training a new army and incorporating the militias into it. Despite promising democratic elections, militia demands gradually undermined the civilian government, taking the members of parliament more or less hostage and leading to Libya having two or three governments, each with its own militia backers. And then some fighters declared for Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). So the intervention in Libya went from being a humanitarian one to a method of regime change to having a legacy of civil war. Why exactly would Syria be different?

6. Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal and his regime is known for mass torture of prisoners. It would be better for everyone if he stepped down. But if he were removed abruptly with the help of US airstrikes, then wouldn’t what happened to Libya happen to Syria? What would stop al-Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani from sweeping into Damascus and taking over? What would stop Daesh from picking up the pieces in Syria? As horrible as it is to contemplate, a Daesh or al-Qaeda victory in Syria is even worse than regime stability.

7. We can’t trust US intervention because Washington power elites are amoral and have been perfectly willing, under Saudi influence, to back fundamentalist militias. Most of them have the ethnic cleansing of Alawis, Druze, Christians and secular Sunnis on their minds. The CIA is nevertheless using Saudi Arabia as an intermediary to supply them with arms. Washington is also so tied to Tel Aviv that you can’t assume any US intervention in Syria would be for the sake of Syrian civilians. Some US policy makers, including former NSC, have suggested that it benefits the US and its allies to have the Syrian civil war continue. And some US policy-makers favored breaking up Iraq when they were running it. (Partitions just create smaller states that go on fighting with one another; see: South Sudan). Washington elites are also greedy and implemented policies in Iraq aimed at enriching themselves or their buddies. In Syria, they’d be carpetbaggers again.

Americans are practical people and they incorrectly believe that all problems have relatively simple solutions. Contemporary civil wars at the level of back alleys, fought between neighbors of different ethnicities or religions with suicide bombings and Kalashnikovs, are an unsolvable calculus problem. International law can be a hindrance to timely action but flouting it can undermine what little order and norms the international arena has. The US military is far too blunt an instrument to be deployed successfully in this case, and US policy-makers can’t be trusted to do what is good for the Syrians. As bad as things in Syria have been, they would have been as bad or worse if the US intervened more heavily.

(I except the actions taken against Daesh, because they are plausibly self-defense and not condemned by anyone on the UNSC. But the aerial bombardment hasn’t been effective.)

In the 1820s when the Greeks rose up against their Ottoman government, President Secretary of State John Quincy Adams got enormous pressure to intervene on the Greek side. He declined, saying of the USA, “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” We need to get back to that policy and recognize that American wars not fought in self-defense are American imperialism and American quagmires.

The most effective thing anyone has done to tamp down violence in Syria was the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire of the past spring and early summer. If someone wants an intervention, let’s try to get that one back on track.


Related video:

France24: “War in Syria: Russia says daily ceasefires starting today in Aleppo”

46 Responses

  1. During the Spanish civil war, which had horrors quite as poignant as Syria, individuals from many countries, including the US, got on their feet and went off to add their efforts to what they perceived as the cause of freedom. Now, when their sensitivities are selectively stirred, they sit at home and expect their leaders, or someone, to do something. It should not be the task of governments to interfere in locations where their own populations are at no risk. If Israelis are challenged about human rights they often point out that there are many worse than them. Although that distressing justification extended logically would lead the human race back to barbarism, it is also true. If there are considered supra-national needs for involvement, they should be taken up by the UN, in a manner similar to a householder calling law enforcement if a neighbour causes unacceptable disturbance. Anything else is like grabbing a weapon and barging over to sort it out. The fact that Clinton believes promising to bomb Assad in his palace will encourage the US electorate to make her Commander in Chief seems…I can’t think of a word…’grotesque’ seems too mild.

  2. the USA has already been deeply involved in intervening in Syria,
    getting the “civil war” going by employing Mercenaries to get the Syrian government forces to return fire into crowds of civilians.
    But that isn’t reported here.

  3. Actually, James Monroe was President, and John Quincy Adams, as Secretary of State, delivered the speech to which you refer on July 4, 1821. The line you quote, “But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” is followed by an even more prescient line that we would be well advised to heed today: “[America] is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

    Would those who call for intervention and regime change in Syria want another Libya on their hands? That likely would be the result. Countries that lack mature political, economic, and legal institutions are “built” into viable, mature nations only when a certain critical mass within the country is reached that spurs such development. That critical mass includes, but is not necessarily limited to, a standard of living that creates a reasonably-sized middle class; a respect for and trust in the rule of law; and the prospect that individuals can engage in economic pursuits of their choice. All of these act as a catalyst for a country’s population to demand greater political participation and leadership accountability. We cannot do it for them.

    • And just add to your good comments: ‘Countries that lack mature political, economic, and legal institutions are “built” into viable, mature nations only when a certain critical mass within the country is reached that spurs such development. That critical mass includes, but is not necessarily limited to, a standard of living that creates a reasonably-sized middle class; a respect for and trust in the rule of law; and the prospect that individuals can engage in economic pursuits of their choice. All of these act as a catalyst for a country’s population to demand greater political participation and leadership accountability.’: — And we, with increasing urgency, need to do it in and for he USA!

      Also it is remarkable that this article makes ZERO mention of the Pentagon and military-industrial complex and its need to make war and test and sell armaments, our biggest export. And no mention of OIL PIPELINES! Huge factor.

  4. Of course, they could have “forestalled civil war” by not meddling in the region in the first place.

    This is why I cringe every time they phrase “you break it you own it” is used, apparently as a technical term in what passes for analysis in the “excellent and principled” commentariat. While it sounds nice to accept responsibility (purely in the abstract, no reparations are ever mentioned), this really only leaves the door open for more wars to bring stability to the places destabilized by the previous aggression.

  5. I am glad to read this sensible and reassuring article, not only because it shows clearly that declaring a part of a sovereign country as a no-fly zone is not a minor affair, but that without a Security Council resolution it is an act of aggression that will involve major military campaigns and does not often end well.

    There have been calls by the usual suspects, such as the op-ed by Dennis Ross and Andrew Tabler in the New York Times, for a bombing campaign against the Syrian government. The neocons were actively behind the invasion of Iraq, the no-fly zone in Libya, and they have been continuously inciting attacks on Iran, even after the nuclear agreement that has ended the propaganda about Iran’s nuclear weapons. The thought of attacking and invading Middle East countries, of course with the sole exception of Israel, comes easily to them, regardless of the consequences for millions of innocent civilians. I hope that despite her current enthusiasm for a no-fly zone in Syria, when she comes to power Secretary Clinton will think twice about it.

    I am also glad to read your explanation for your initial no-fly zone in Libya, something that has always bothered me. The Western campaign against Libya had nefarious motives and was illegal as it went well beyond protecting the civilians that the Security Council resolution had authorized. I am reassured by your explanation about why you supported the initial call for the protection of the civilians in Libya, but you clearly distance yourself from what happened afterwards, which was illegal and catastrophic for the Libyan people.

  6. Juan, are you kidding?? save your ink. it’s all pressure from Zionist Israel. exactly the same as for Iraq in 2002.

  7. ” Sec. Clinton’s team are already talking about taking steps to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from office as soon as they get into the White House.” This type of bulling is not in the National interest. The other candidate is less bad.

    • No the other candidate is not “less bad”. As Prof. Cole has teased out here, the Middle East is fraught. Will Hillary make it better? Probably not.

      But Trump’s desire to cave to Russia, to essentially nullify our Nato obligations, and above all his willful ignorance of vital matters such as nuclear deterrence and the nuclear triad . . . well, you think the US is messed up, wait Europe is roundly destabilized along with a host of other regions in the globe as a result of an ignoramus who is in over his head.

      And at this late date, need we name a host of other problematics with the neo-fasc . . . whoops, I meant, GOP, nominee (I somehow always make that mistake!)

      And as always, pars republicana delenda est!

      • There are many objections to Trump, but the notion that he would “cave to Russia” should be tossed as mere neofascist propaganda. Exactly where do you see Russian aggression? In Ukraine, where the alleged invading armored divisions were invisible to everyone? In Crimea, long Russian and which voted to return, and where Russia has one of its few naval bases, which total a tiny percentage of the US bases? In Syria, where they protected their other naval base and prevented a jihadist takeover there and in Iraq? Only a right-wing warmonger would see those as aggression.

        • You are right on that score – thank you for the critique! My worry still remains Trump’s lack of commitment to our Nato obligations, esp. as regards the Baltics. But as Juan notes, let us not seek monsters abroad – there are enough here at home.

  8. I find the different factions waging war in Syria much like the presidential election here at home….There is no one to cheer for.

  9. I think the general public is entirely out of the loop when it comes to Middle East interventions. The objectives are vague, the results indescribable, and to channel Yogi Berra, everyday is “Groundhog Day”.

    Since US casualties in the more recent interventions, and ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, are virtually non-existent, The whole thing has an air of outsourcing. The military operation is like an “airstrikes on request” open ended administration contract.

    Clinton does seem like a perfect fit for continuation of the bombing for peace paradigm. Worse yet it seems like she actually has faith in it, where I doubt Obama does.

  10. Yes, this pretty much summarises my thoughts on the issue, barring of course the behaviour of the Turks and the tragedy of Syria’s civil war restarting Turkey’s. Of course one can always point to the domestic factors as well in places like Turkey or Iraq for how their civil wars merged with Syria’s, but the original sin remains the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein by the US/UK in 2003.

  11. Thank you for writing this comprehensive and persuasive article. I hope the New York Times op-ed columnist that you mention reads your article. In his op-ed, the columnist bemoans the lack of intervention in Syria and writes that the general excuse against intervention in Syria the American people make is: “It’s horrible what’s going on over there, but there’s just nothing we can do.”

    He reduces the entire argument against the intervention to one false sentence and then argues against this one sentence. If one feels for the people of Syria and wishes to help them during this strife, there is plenty that can be done, which does not the require intervention that he advocates for. The most important action is stop selling any military equipment and munitions to Saudi Arabia. This would be a concrete step that would have important consequences for the people of Syria. Saudi Arabia has funneled munitions to extremist groups in Syria. These actions have resulted in empowering groups that have commit terrorism worldwide and have committed pogroms in Syria. Our ability to negotiate a comprehensive settlement in Syria is not curtailed by lack of bargaining chips as the op-ed columnist argues, but through the presence of extremist groups in Syria that presumably would negotiate with Assad to reach a settlement.

    Saudi and Turkish empowerment of extremist groups in Syria has eviscerated the ability of Syrian people to form a unified, secular and democratic opposition. Syrians are no different to anyone else in the world, they too can form such an opposition. There are plenty of people in Syria that could form a democratic civilian government that could govern Syria justly. However, these individuals have been completely sidelined and drowned out by extremist groups in Syria that are supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. If we force Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stop supporting extremist groups in Syria, this would greatly improve the lives of Syrians today through a de-escalation of hostilities in Syria. In turn, this action would also allow Syrians to form an opposition movement that is free of extremism and beholden only to it’s citizens.

  12. Paul Mueth

    left out that was stoking the war directly and indirectly. And despite lack of coverage or discussion has been opposing diplomacy.

  13. Hi Juan, quite balanced and rational view. It was nice to read such article and I cant agree more that over simplistic view about a difficult conflict in a complex society would only produce horrible outcomes.

  14. So what is the end game here? Sunni Syrians are 80% of Syrias citizens and virtually no one of them is currently fighting on Assad’s side and the only minority actually fighting are the Alawites who have basically ran out of men (one town of 6000 lost 150 men in the latest Aleppo fighting) which is why they are importing shia militias.

    Sooner or later as one secular Sunni activist said the day of reckoning will come when the regime will collapse on its own weight and the only way to save the minorities is direct military invasion.

    Let us remember there was not a single bearded man in 2011 leading a military faction and the number of dead and refugees was less 3000 and 250k respectively. The powers dragged their feet as the slaughter against Sunnis continued and lead to the inevitable outcome we see today. The window is still open for peace provided the Assad clan is removed from power and put to trial for war crimes. Anything less will make peace harder.

    • “The window is still open for peace provided the Assad clan is removed from power and put to trial for war crimes.” And then the Ba`thist regime is replaced by… what?

    • That’s silly. I figure at least half of Sunnis are with the regime or at least prefer it to the fundies

      • Dr. Cole, what information do you have about the numerical strength and demographic composition of the Syrian military of 2016?

        • It is down to about 80,000 from an original 300,000. It is disproportionately Alawite but still has members from among Sunni Arabs and other communities.

      • It was the case until 2013, not anymore. The Chemical attack and the cowardly response to it changed everything. The world basically said, and this is what Syrians say in social media including militant secularists like Ghassan Al-Imam, the life of a sunni is worthless to us.

        It is all a matter of perception and if this was the people’s perceptions people will adopt it

        • Of course don’t let the presence of not only large numbers of Sunnis in the SAA, and the formation of (volunteer) Sunni militias to back the SAA stop you from spouting off like someone absolutely certain that the Iraqis would ‘welcome American troops as liberators’.

        • @An Observer,

          I presume you mean the attack in-around Ghouta? Who actually planned, supplied, and and launched that attack? What did the forensic evidence actually say?

  15. I wanted the Assads gone for decades. Now my only wish is for all the people of Syria that they might find peace above all, that they might resume a semblance of a normal life with education for their children and healthcare for all. That the 4.8m refugees live decent lives and find a real home at home or somewhere else if it must be. And my heart aches very, very deeply because I cannot see any way that this can happen anytime soon. And in the midst of all this, I have to vote for Hillary the Hawk to save the world from Donald the Profoundly Dangerous.

    • Thank you Joanna, I am in much the same shoes. It must have been ’82-83-ish, when I ghostwrote some
      Saudi student’s thesis on the recent history of the Arab-Israeli wars, I laid it on the Assads in sardonic academic language and the client loved it.

      In the meantime I have been developing my own vision of a serious history student’s take on “all lives matter” since ’78-79, and I did mean that to be inclusive of, and telling the stories of, all the forgotten women of all colors, places and times who have actually built human society.

      And I have come to much the same conclusions as you in your “only wish” (but with watching the history for many decades, able to remember all the totally unexpected things and keep some optimism).

      I do believe that Obama caved in that initial meeting with the national-security gurus that occurred on 1-20-09,. and I do carry some optimism that Hillary very well have the experience, as Sec. of State, and the personal relationships, and the “stones”, to be able to say on 1-20-17 “NO, gentlemen, we are going to do things somewhat differently, my way.”

    • You fail to argue that you should choose one dangerous and incompetent candidate over the other. You can either not vote or punish the Dems for their conspiracy of sexists and warmongers, which betrayed their constituency and their office. Looking at one side’s faults is transparent propaganda.

  16. thank you for this important insight juan. i would make one point, however, which is that the US could have forestalled it if it had done the right thing and expanded the security council permanent membership and done away with the P5 veto. if the russians didn’t have the veto, they couldn’t have blocked all attempts to use the SC to force a stop to the fighting and hold assad accountable. but of course that would mean that israel would be held accountable for its actions, never mind the US for ours. still, that would have been a singular achievement for obama that might have earned him that nobel he still doesn’t deserve.

    • On what do you base your apparent belief that the U.S. could have “expanded the Security Council permanent membership and done away with the P5 veto” on its own. Do you think the U.S., or any other country, can just have its way in the U.N.? Why would it have been in the U.S. interest to do away with the P5 veto in any case? And even if the U.S. had tried to implement your suggestion, Russia would have (you guessed it!) vetoed it.

  17. US motives —
    1. The Qatar pipeline that al-Assad opposes;
    2. Weakening or eliminating the Irani support for Hizbullah for the benefit of Israel;
    3. Getting the Russians out of their naval base in Tartus.
    None of these have changed, yet Prof. Cole makes no mention of them in his assessment.

  18. Hello Juan –

    About that Tacitus quote: the first part is equally important: Auferre, trucidare, rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi sollitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – “To steal, to butcher, to pillage they call by the false names ‘empire’, and where they make a desert they call it peace.” That is, appropriation of resources, as noted by the “barbarian” leader Calgacus who delivers the speech (though it was written by a Roman, i.e., Tacitus), is the pretense for empire. Gotta keep that Roman economy humming!

    But what is remarkable about the passage is that it was written by a Roman, who had no qualms about being quite frank about the reality of Roman power. It should be noted that Tacitus’ audience was, for the most part, the elite. The Romans were honest, frank, and open about the basis of their own power. We . . . well, not so much. But the Romans were pagan and had little respect for human life or the individual. We – with 2000 years of Abrahamic religion under our belt, need to pretend that we do, and (to lift an old movie line) are happy to be allowed to pretend.

    As always, pars Republicana delenda est!

  19. Many international problems have no good solutions. There are many states which could become failed states if their authoritarian regimes are toppled. When they are toppled instability is almost guaranteed whether there is intervention or not. I would just add that Libya was almost guaranteed to be a mess once a full scale civil war began, even if NATO had not expanded bombing. if NATO had not tilted the fighting against the regime, you probably would have ended up with something similar to Syria. Either way you get a mess, just a different type of mess with lots of suffering all around. The main difference between Libya and Syria is that Syria is much more populated so that the problems are multiplied. To ramble a bit, this is a constant in US foreign policy analysis. After 9/11 many pundits were saying that after the Russians left Afghanistan we dropped the ball by not intervening in Afghanistan and allowing the Taliban to take over. Well, we intervened, removed the Taliban and 15 years later that country is still a mess. What more examples do people need?

  20. Eagerly looking forward to the report titled ‘Top 7 reasons the US COULD have forestalled Syrian Civil War’.
    However, that is all irrelevant, as the Syrian Civil War only lasted about 2 weeks before morphing into an attack on Syria, orchestrated by outside governments. Ask Robert Ford or Hillary, for further details..

  21. Mike Cantrell

    The US could EASILY have forestalled the Syrian “civil war” – we could have cut ALL aid and support to Israel and Saudi Arabia – the two states that, along with Washington spawned and support that terrorist invasion.

  22. “Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal and his regime is known for mass torture of prisoners.”

    Unfortunately this is true of every dictator the US has installed, and the regime-change fascists never care, so obviously that is not their concern, it is their propaganda. It will not do to pretend that a government can play nice during a revolution. The objection is that the government is not democratic, but neither are any others in the region. The true objection is that it is not majority-controlled, but it would not be more just if it were: it would be another Saudi Arabia.

    This article ignores the obvious conjunction of motives for the Syrian conflict: Israeli fascism, Saudi fanaticism, and a few US loonie anti-Russian warmongers. There is no other motive for US intervention among its advocates.

  23. With respect, completely missing the point. There is an elephant in the room that nobody will mention.

    Syria’s government deliberately created a population explosion – they even made the sale and possession of contraceptives illegal, and had the population doubling every 18 years. You can chant ‘the more the merrier’ all you like, no society without an open frontier or colonies has EVER avoided mass misery with this kind of population growth. But we can’t talk about this openly, because cheap labor.

    link to

    • Not true at all.

      Contraceptions were illegal only in Lebanon when it was under christian minority rule, in Syria the government was pretty active in promoting contraceptions since the 80s, the problem was the Syrian people, ironically women more than men, did not want birth control because having children for the sake of having children is a source of pride among women, a barren woman means her sisters won’t marry and bachelor women is a great shame in their culture.

      I should know, my neighbour had 13 children and 4 miscarriages, all her daughters married by the time they were 18 and the one as old as I am (31 and who is currently living in Syria) has 8 children on her own 3 of them during the war.

  24. All you really need to know to see the falseness of the basic premises (that what is happening in Syria is a ‘civil war’, and that the US didn’t play a key role in starting it) is encapsulated in the coverage of the effects,and reaction to, the various battles for control over cities. If it is the Syrian government forces, all the reportage is about the destruction caused by the battles, the suffering of the captive population, and not a single mention of the celebrations when the city is no longer in the control of those who fought their way into the cities in the first place. If it is the forces that pay lip service to Washington that are doing the fighting, the reportage is about the oppression and worse visited on the captive population by those who fought their way into the city, and (see the other story on this page) the celebrations of the liberation of the city is prominently covered.

  25. TG could not be more mistaken about Syrian demographics under the Ba’ath.

    In 1980, the total fertility rate (ave. children born to each woman over her reproductive lifetime) in Syria was over 7.

    On the eve of the civil war, Syria’s TFR stood at about 3.

    Syrian women have reduced their childbearing by more than half, within the space of a single generation, and all under the Ba’athist gov’t which TG claims was fostering natality.

    Westerners need to understand that TFR’s in many parts the Arab and Muslim world today (not just in Syria), have been dropping more rapidly than was in the case in many European countries, when they going through their demographic transitions.

    For instance, how many people here are aware that Iran’s fertility rates, after a generation of theocracy, have dropped below replacement level (Iran’s TFR is 1.75 !).

    The bigger surprise is Saudi Arabia. Fertility rates in the arch-conservative kingdom have plummeted dramatically since 1980, from over 7 to less than 3. Again, that’s faster than most European countries during their demographic transitions.

    I find it fascinating that the big demographic trend is taking place indifferently across all sorts of racial, religious, and politico-economic boundaries.

  26. This is a good and detailed account of the case against intervention. I think some of your points are really important and not well understood. But I’m troubled by some of the others, where I think you go a bit far and make some unconvincing analogies. I’m not sure this undermines your case – I just don’t know what I think about intervention.

    Your most important point, in my opinion, is that the casualty rates in Iraq were fairly similar to Syria, and that the Iraq example in general does not suggest that US intervention would improve matters.. This links to a wider point that needs emphasis. There is an argument going round about Syria along the lines of, “well this is what happens when the US doesn’t intervene.” It rests on the fundamentally false premise that outside intervention has not played a significant role in the Syrian conflict. For one thing, despite the lack of direct US intervention prior to the anti-ISIS strikes, the US has been thoroughly involved (and other western powers) from the beginning, helping to channel financial and military aid to the rebels. No matter the justice of the rebels’ cause (and I think it’s very just), funneling weapons into a war zone exacerbated the conflict. More importantly, while US intervention in Syria may be relatively minor compared to other recent interventions, foreign intervention in general has been huge and it’s precisely the internationalization of the conflict that has caused such carnage. This includes foreign intervention on behalf of the rebels (Turkey, KSA, Qatar) which put far more weapons into the country than the US did, and foreign intervention on behalf of the regime (Iran, Russia), without which it probably would have collapsed some time ago. So the “well this is what happens when the US doesn’t intervene” argument rests on the assumption that US intervention is qualitatively different from the intervention of other powers, and as your point (7) and Iraq shows, this isn’t the case.

    Your analogy with Libya in point 5 does not persuade me. Of course, the intervention there has not gone well. And I agree that the intervention did not abide by the UNSC resolution, with troubling consequences for international law. But however bad Libya is, it’s nowhere near as bad as Syria. Syria is already a failed state split between warring militias. So the argument that we shouldn’t intervene in Syria because it might end up like Libya doesn’t work.

    I’m also troubled by the implications of your point 6, which leans too close to the “there are no good guys” idea. It seems to assume that there is no appetite among Syrians to oppose the jihadists, which is demonstrably wrong. Syrian rebels have successfully opposed Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra on several occasions, and they have been best able to when the pressure from Assad’s bombing has lessened. The reason that mainstream rebels are now collaborating with Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo is that Assad and Russia have forced them into that position: hundreds of thousands of civilians’ lives were at stake in the Aleppo siege, the families of the rebels. It’s actually remarkable how much the Syrian opposition has resisted the jihadist presence given their circumstances. Just a couple of months ago, there were protests in Idlib province against Jabhat al-Nusra: unarmed civilians chasing jihadist fighters off the streets.

    I think the hierarchy of evil suggested by this argument is also troubling. The jihadists are awful people, for sure. But they have not killed and tortured on anything like the scale of the Assad regime. Maybe they would have done if they’d had access to an air force – but they haven’t. To say that we shouldn’t stop an actual genocide because it might lead to a hypothetical one is morally problematic. From a western perspective, it seems like sacrificing Syrians for western interests (because a jihadi government is more threatening to us than Assad is).

    On your point 1, you are absolutely right about the impact on international law of previous US unilateralism. But I think the problem is far more difficult than you’re admitting. Not only Iraq, but also the recent Libya intervention is cited by other powers that violate international law. With Russia, we can also include the intervention against Serbia in the list of US actions that have led to Russia’s current aggressive foreign policy. Perhaps Russia would not be so heavily involved in Syria were it not for the US record over the past couple of decades: Russia’s argument is that international law tries to stop Russia defending its interests but gets ignored whenever the US wants to trample on Russia’s interests.

    So the ideal that the world would be better if everybody obeyed international law, and that as the greatest power the US has a really important role to play in setting the example, is a compelling one. But, the fact remains that right now Russia (and Iran) are in flagrant violation of international law in Syria, conducting a military campaign that expressly aims at killing civilians by aerial bombardment, by starvation, and by the denial of medical care, in order to render opposition-held areas unsustainable due to lack of population. These are war crimes on a spectacular scale and allowing them to pass does nothing to promote international law. And they have the same effect on powers antagonistic to Russia (KSA, Turkey, etc.) that US unilateralism has on Russia and other anti-US rulers – although it’s the biggest, the US is not the only aggressive great power! In sum, I think this problem is far more difficult – morally and politically – than you allow.

    The last point I’d like to make is that your objections to safe zones and a no-fly zone rest on the assumption that they would be vigorously resisted by the Syrian regime. This doesn’t seem clear. Foreign intervention on the rebels’ side has been a disaster for Assad: without it he would have won. If there had been a limited intervention by the US, he would not have wanted to escalate it. In fact, his approach seems to have been to test the waters gradually with actions that might antagonize the US, to see what he could get away with. This doesn’t necessarily mean a no-fly zone or safe zone would have worked: for one thing, it’s not clear how much control the regime has over its armed forces, and rash acts by individual commanders might not follow strategic logic. Now, of course, the intervention of Russia massively complicates things and may make a full no-fly zone impossible. But I don’t think your argument can rely on the assumption that, 3 years ago, there would have been a forceful response from Assad: it doesn’t seem likely. And your objection that a safe zone could be a target for jihadist car-bombings, etc., again fails to recognize the severity of the Assad-Russia bombing campaign. A zone that was occasionally hit by a car-bomb would be far, far preferable to a town under daily indiscriminate aerial bombardment, or under siege, or both.

    Your concluding paragraph is right – the most effective measure in reducing violence so far has been the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire. A diplomatic solution would be the best thing and there should be nothing that’s off the table and so standing in the way of a resolution (although I’m skeptical about whether it’s possible to negotiate a solution that leaves Assad in power and the Syrian regime unreconstructed – would you lay down your arms if you thought that meant disappearing into a torture dungeon forever?) But diplomacy isn’t working right now, and that’s not entirely the US’s fault. The main reason seems to be that Russia has decided it must push for as great a military advantage as possible regardless of consequences. After that initial ceasefire, all subsequent ceasefires announced by Russia have been entirely fictional: they say there’s a ceasefire for international consumption, and then carry on bombing. So those of us who would prefer to see the US intervene diplomatically rather than militarily (me as well as you!) need to have some suggestions about how to change Russia’s course.

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