Foreign Policy / National Security

The Window of Opportunity is Closed

On Wednesday morning, The New York Times reported that the conflict in Syria is evolving into a civil war. An extension of the 2011 Arab Spring, many Syrians have been calling to depose Bashar al-Assad, the western educated Syrian dictator. This was met by violent clashes between the Syrian people and the strong military, with many civilian deaths. The Alawite military commanders show loyalty to the Alawite al-Assad, and as a result, innocent Syrians are being slaughtered. The United States has shown no strong desire to intervene in the Syrian conflict, and the window of opportunity to do so has closed.

The international community could justify an intervention with the Responsibility to Protect, a UN mandate that justifies intervention in a sovereign nation when its leader fails to protect its own people from mass atrocities. Invoked and vindicated in Libya, the international community easily could use this to justify an intervention in Syria, if they wanted to.

The truth is, it is not in America’s interest to directly intervene in Syria. Right now, it is turning a blind eye to Saudi and Qatari-funded smuggling of anti-tank weapons to opposition fighters through Turkey, which is fine. Unlike Libya, however, the Syrian conflict is much more complicated. According to Secretary Clinton, Russia is sending al-Assad attack helicopter and Iran, of course, will try to keep its ally in power. Its neighbors would not be supportive of an intervention, either. Israel prefers having the hostile, but stable, al-Assad in power, so it won’t take a stance. Iraq, with a slight Shia majority, will neither want to depose a Shia leader and put a Sunni in power nor will it want to aid its long-time rival’s ally. Although stable, Lebanon, and to a certain extent Jordan, have sectarian tension as well and would not want to get involved in sectarian conflict. Of all of Syria’s neighbors, Turkey would most likely be the only one who would support international intervention, although it would fear instability in Syria as it could incite the Kurds to rebel against Ankara. Entering Syria through the sea would be problematic as well: the Russian Mediterranean fleet is currently in Tartus. Furthermore, unlike the situations in Libya and Egypt, the opposition is not clearly organized. In Libya, the rebels were geographically separated from Qaddafi and his forces, and in Egypt the opposition was clearly united. Without geographic or organizational bounds, it would be very difficult for a no-fly zone to be sufficient; it would need boots on the ground, putting international lives at risk, getting caught in what is sure to be a gruesome civil war, and potentially getting involved in a proxy war with Iran.  We don’t want any of that.

The United Nations created the Responsibility to Protect to eliminate genocide and ensure the safety of innocent people in oppressive countries. It neither compels nations to take sides in a civil war nor does it require nations to take excessive risks with their troops. It is unfortunate, as senior members of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group-in-exile said, that it is being classified as a civil war as it gives the impression of an even match; furthermore, the international community has no moral responsibility to take sides in a civil war. If a large international coalition could be formed behind an opposition group, with support from neighbors and a clear objective, America should intervene on humanitarian grounds. Until that happens, America doesn’t need to be dragged into another war.

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