Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Tough Political Choices in Syria: Recognizing the Stakes of Inaction

Paul S. Rowe


May 17, 2013
By Paul S. Rowe 

The Syrian civil war is now going into its third year. It did not have to come to this. Relatively peaceful demonstrations that arose during the Arab Spring of 2011 were met with brutality, and the Syrian government’s apocalyptic response dashed the hopes of many that change might come without war. Amid speculation about the use of chemical weapons and Israel’s intervention, there is a growing feeling that Western states are unable and unwilling to intervene.  Bashar al-Assad’s government holds on with support from Iran and Russia.  His willingness to escalate the use of violence demonstrates a steely determination to continue the fight no matter what, all the while contributing to the radicalization of the opposition.  What started as the dramatic demonstration of people power in homage to the protests in Tunis, Cairo, and Sana’a has turned into a nasty and brutish struggle for control of Damascus.  No matter who wins, the victory will be tainted by the way people power was replaced by the power of the sword.

Such a cynical assessment leads many to throw up their hands in despair when faced with tough political choices.  Why should Western states intervene in such a quagmire, knowing that the ultimate outcome is fraught with the danger of bringing to power a regime just as repressive as that of the Assad family?  Better to let the war drive to its bitter end and then adjust to the consequences.

But this assessment ignores the real possibility that the stakes are much higher than just the future of Syria.  This conflict brings to mind the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, which spread to include all the sectarian groups fighting for control of the country as well as the PLO, Syria, Israel, and Iran.  Though the violence was generally restricted to Lebanon, it led to the creation of Hizballah and sowed some of the seeds of the conflict now raging in Syria.  With or without the participation of Western states, regional players will take the opportunity to shape the conflict as they wish – and not in the best interests of the Syrian people.

Israel’s attack on Damascus missile facilities on May 5, 2013 was one form of such escalation.  For many years, both Israel and Syria have dealt with each other indirectly – Syria by supporting Hizballah in its attacks on Israel, and Israel responding directly and often disproportionately against Hizballah targets in Lebanon.  The civil war now raging in Syria provides an excellent opportunity for Israel to go right to the source and disrupt the Hizballah supply chain.  As a tactical move, the raid makes excellent sense: take advantage of the current weakness of the Syrian regime and undermine the already shaking foundations of the self-styled Lebanese “resistance.”  But unless some greater underlying change comes to Syria, the Israeli raid only postpones the eventual outpouring of anger over its role in the regional conflict.

The confusion over who exactly has used chemical weapons in Syria (though most agree that the government was the perpetrator) underscores deep misgivings about the opposition, many of whom seem to be answering the call to jihad in hopes of establishing a more repressive Sunni state.  However, these groups will only be emboldened and empowered by the absence of Western interest in Syria.  Though it behooves the United States and other Western allies to be very careful about whom they support in the struggle, staying aloof will only mean that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will determine who will be most influential in the opposition, and this will likely strengthen the Salafist and jihadist elements.  Without some form of Western involvement, the only people who will benefit from Assad’s inevitable demise will be Islamists of the more radical variety, in a country with a long history of secular nationalism.

To say that Western states should not remain aloof is not to say what exactly they should do.  Supplying the opposition with more and greater weapons is an easy trap to fall into, but it seems likely that will only increase the level of violence. Pressure on Syria’s remaining allies, in addition to humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing the conflict, remain the obvious alternatives.  The gradual application of air power, from no-fly zones to direct attacks on Syrian installations, would be the next logical step.  Though involvement in a messy situation is likely to dirty our hands, ignoring the situation would only break faith with the hopeful revolutionaries of the Syrian Arab Spring. 

-   Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History, Geography, and Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada. 

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”