Since Bosnia and Rwanda, it's been clear that the international community disgraces itself when it stands by and let's blood flow at the hands of murderous state thugs. Here are the arguments for and against intervention in Syria. You decide.

Anyone who thinks that stopping genocide and mass killings is nothing to do with New Zealand  is saying we should rip up our membership of the ‘international community’ now. 

 Here are the arguments for and against.

 Anti intervention

1. President Obama is understandably reluctant to commit America after the Iraq quagmire. He says the US  can’t intervene in every civil war:  “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?’’

2. Military intervention can have unintended consequences. Arming jihadists who have made themselves part of the protest movement in Syria is one example. The radical jihadists of al Nusra could get hold of chemical weapons if the rebels became government.

3. We don’t need another Iraq, or to enter a war we can neither control nor predict its end.

4. It’s a neo-conservative position, says blogger Andrew Sullivan, to talk about ‘creating pro-Western elements’ in the rebel forces to counteract the jihadists, and we should have nothing to do with it.

5. This is not our war. It’s a civil war, and we shouldn’t intervene in civil wars. 

6. Syria is ‘complicated’. We can’t fix ethnic and religious divisions going back centuries. Sunni account for 74% of the population, while 13% are Shia  (Alawite, Twelvers, and Ismailis combined) and 10% are Christian. Assad is Alawite. 

7. If we intervene on the side of the rebels we’ll be allowing a bloodbath against Shias and Alawites in particular.

8. There’s nothing to be gained politically from intervening. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton stood aloof while 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda, and didn’t lose votes back home. When he did the right thing and intervened to stop genocide in Bosnia, he didn’t gain any votes either. If Obama fails to take action once the ‘red line’ has been crossed (the use of chemical weapons) it’ll be one news cycle. But years of bloody war in Syria will dominate headlines for years, says Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch.


Pro intervention

9. QC Geoffrey Robertson, expert on international law says that the disastrous Iraq invasion  ‘should not be allowed to affect the principles of humanitarian intervention, other than to illustrate the risks of ignoring them. “Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who mass murdered some 300,000 of his people; his regime should have been ousted when he began to use poison gas against the Kurds...”

10. Military intervention has worked in other countries, despite the failure of Iraq, says development economist, Paul Collier. Timor, Uganda and Sierra Leone are all examples of effective military intervention, combined with long term commitments to provide aid and economic development . 

11. When is a civil war not a civil war? Lethal force to disperse a one-off demonstration like Bloody Sunday in Ireland is not a crime against humanity. A month of Bloody Sundays is, says Geoffrey Robertson. The repeated use of tanks, machine guns, and worse, on unarmed civilians looks like a crime against humanity.  

12. “Modern civil wars are horrific and we should intervene. They overwhelmingly affect civilians in the poorest and most desperate environments on Earth. Rich nations don’t fall victim to political violence, but do bear some of its costs. After all, broken societies are havens for illegality, whether drug trafficking or training of terrorists,” says Paul Collier.

13. If the international community had acted earlier, as they did in Libya, there could have been a fledging democracy by now. This is no excuse not to act now. A no fly zone in Syria should be the first step.

14. Being ‘complicated’ is no excuse for inaction.  Most civil wars today are caused by events in the recent past not something too hard to unravel that happened in the 14th century, says Paul Collier. The causes are much simpler than they seem; economic stagnation, too many young men with no jobs and lots of guns, and a small ruling elite who do very well out of oil or diamonds while everyone else lives in poverty.

15. Even if it makes re-election tougher for political leaders, they must do the right thing and act. Multilateral intervention, similar to the response to Gaddafi in Libya must begin now, in the name of defending human rights everywhere.

Comments (6)

by stuart munro on May 16, 2013
stuart munro

The problem with intervention is objectives.

Intervene to what end? It was effective in Timor because it was essentially action against an external force. Civil war is more complex.

Mission creep in Afghanistan started from the pursuit of Bin Laden, and was improperly extended to the Taliban - who as a somewhat popular domestic political organisation have more right to be involved in Afghan politics than the rumps of failed minor parties like ACT or United Future in NZ. Late stage mission creep involved a discourse about feminism which really needs to develop incrementally locally rather than be imposed by armed invasion, and really didn't have much to do with Bin Laden.

Before invading Syria, a plan for occupation and re-transition to local control besides facilitating the neoliberal looting of state assets that characterised the Iraq occupation is really necessary. America has proven loath to support democratisation of states liberated by their forces. Kuwait for example is still not a democracy, and New Zealand has a number of political refugees who fled there from a well-founded fear of imprisonment or death.

By all means consider aiding a Syrian spring, but do the homework first. That should probably happen through the UN. But while considering supporting democratising regimes, perhaps NZ should be building civil and humanitarian ties with Tunisia or Egypt or Libya, assisting with rebuilding civil institutions rather than blowing things up. The larger powers have the blowing things up part covered.

by David Hall on May 17, 2013
David Hall

The essence of the dilemma for me is the distinction between ideal theory, working out what ought to be done in the abstract by reference to moral principles, and nonideal theory, working out how to take this messy, nonideal world a little closer to the ideal.

It's fairly easy to come up with an ideal theory, by reference to rights or consequences or virtues or whatever. These stories are usually compelling. But when it comes to implementing actual intervention, the responsibility presently falls on states. And states aren't single-minded entities that act on some coherent set of reasons. States are (if they are anything) a mass of people, encompassing very different reasons and differing degrees of influence. Therefore, states have mixed and ever-changing motives, so taking a state to war is like taking a tiger for a pet - it's naive in the extreme, probably culpably short-sighted, to expect it to behave in the way you (ideally) planned it to. Proponents of intervention should not be allowed to isolate themselves from these nonideal considerations. Listening to Bernard-Henri Lévy defend intervention recently, that's precisely what he does, always shifting the debate to the abstract, the ideal, where a clear, coherent answer is possible (as well as the classic emotive appeal to dead babies). The problem with nonideal theory, of course, is that you have to factor in an awful lot of unknowns. To take one example, who will be President after Obama? Who will inherit the invasion? Hilary Clinton? Paul Ryan? Is it irresponsible or negligent to intervene given that you can't be sure which?

by Eric Dutton on May 17, 2013
Eric Dutton

A problem with intervention is that the boots on the ground are simply those available to the powers that be.  They are not sophisticated, liberal humanitarians.  They are soldier boys with often very limited education and skills.  The officer corps may not be much better, and the whole exercise may depend on arrant falsehoods like "full faith and credit" where New Zealand may have to assume joint responsibility for the behaviour of troops from what we used to be able to call Wogistan.  

Baden Powell set up the Scouting movement as a response to the dismal standard of the youth available for recruitment into HM forces.  Now HM Army accepts recruits with a reading age of 7.  As cannon fodder, they can be trained.  As nation builders, perhaps not.  

The US is not a fit and proper partner in any intervention, because they will not turn over their troops for trial by the locals in case of serious crime.  New Zealand has not (as far as I recall) been placed in such a situation since Egypt in WWII.

So if we are going to intervene, it has to be in a very small war (on the Chathams) that we can solve without allies, or we have to accept our share of responsibility for Guantanamo, extreme rendition, waterboarding ...

Or we can sit on the sidelines, holier than, and sling shit and derision at everybody who takes a risk trying to help.





by Serum on May 17, 2013

What started as pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria two years ago has slowly and horribly degenerated into a vicious civil war and while those urging for intervention in Syria may be driven by humanitarian good intentions to end the fighting and ease suffering, the thought of intervention by Western Powers into Syria should be tempered by the outcome and experience gained from other recent theatres of conflict in the Middle East which have proved to be anything but a blossoming of an “Arab Spring” heading towards democracy. What is apparently not understood is that intervention by those Western Powers have helped to open a Pandora box and unleashing forces that are quite willing to engage in violence that will not stop until they have achieved a total triumph.

In Libya U.S. involvement was indirect and caused no U.S.casualties. While the overthrow of Dictator Muammar Qadhafi would have been a boon to U.S.strategic interests in earlier years, by the time it actually happened Qadhafi was relatively neutralized. Being governed by an elected regime may be counted as a gain for Libyans but anarchy, rule by militia, and extremism is still strong. Arms from Libyan arsenals were smuggled to terrorists in different countries. And of course the murder of four Americans in Benghazishows the continued existence of terrorists—even al-Qaida—the weakness of the government and the unpredictability of Libya’s future. Indeed, the situation in Libya seems to be deteriorating seriously.

In Egypt U.S. intervention overthrew an ally. Many Egyptians now see, despite the talk about democracy, that they are worse off. The initial talk, revolving around freedom, quickly turned into domination by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist mobs. The economy is going down the drain. Christians are under siege; women’s rights are shrinking. Other than a free media it is hard to see what Egyptians got out of it. Certainly, this intervention was a strategic defeat for theUnited States.

So as far as Syriais is concerned the United States and Europe aren't going to intervene, at least not to do more than send more weapons, spend more on refugees, and dispatch humanitarian aid. There is no will to do so, too much can go wrong, and the Obama Administration isn't going to risk having its own equivalent of the Iraqi intervention. It wants to keep a priority on domestic issues and knows the public doesn't want another war-type situation and it can nestle under the excuse that would be offered up by the Russians and Chinese vetoing large-scale intervention at the UN Security Council. 

by stuart munro on May 17, 2013
stuart munro

Syria might be a bit too fraught for NZ to intervene constructively at the moment.

by mandy jane on December 15, 2013
mandy jane

The days when the West can intervene militarily in the middle East are gone.  Every war there is now a proxy war involving powerful external players in close geographic proximity.  Iraq (and Afghanistan) show it is no longer possible. 

The Congo and the many other African conflicts are quite different.  The adversaries there are isolated and can be controlled at relatively little expense.  The French invested little to stop the violence in the Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and (now) the DRC simply because no-one else is or can afford to be interested.

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