The debate over the role of the international community in Syria is disheartening, dominated by skepticism about the ability of outsiders to have a positive impact.
This stems from the fact that two main options – continuing to refrain from direct intervention or waging a fully fledged military campaign – both have serious drawbacks. Is there a middle way?
On the one hand, the prospects of a full-scale military intervention to aid the Syrian opposition seem unrealistic as well as risky. In these times of ongoing economic crisis and public reluctance to embrace “peacekeeping” missions, the appetite for intervention is low, at best.
What’s more, the lack of UN Security Council authorization for a military campaign erodes the international legitimacy of such a step. A divided Security Council also restricts the possibility of framing a campaign in the context of the UN “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine to protect citizens from mass atrocities. The doctrine was invoked a year ago to back NATO’s involvement in Libya.
Other risks include backing an internally divided opposition that the international community neither knows well nor fully understands. One has only to review the growing number of reports of human rights violations by the new regime in Libya to realize the importance of choosing one’s allies carefully.
This is especially true in the context of the existing sectarian divisions in Syria. The largely Sunni opposition forces may well retaliate against the regime by targeting the ruling and minority Alawite community, especially if the country descends further into strife.
Finally, military intervention in a deeply divided country is a complicated business, and could easily bog down.
On the other hand, continuing the current mix of harsh rhetoric and weak sanctions is also dangerous and ineffective. Right now, the Syrian rebels are not strong enough to oust Bashar al-Assad and topple his regime. At the same time, the regime does not have the capacity to completely crush the opposition. So the country will continue to experience intense internal conflict and civilian suffering, given that the chances of the parties reaching a negotiated agreement are slim.
This prolonged civil war would be disastrous for the Syrian people, and would put the rest of the region at risk. Growing strife and state weakness can lead to increasing lawlessness. That in turn could attract more “problematic” individuals (like foreign jihadists) to Syria and also endanger the relative quiet at the Syrian-Israeli border.
The growing influx of Syrian refugees to neighboring countries can also export instability to the region, especially Jordan.
Finally, going with the status quo powerfully undermines the emerging “responsibility to protect” doctrine. International inaction in the face of ongoing massacres in Syria – which are comparable in scale and humanitarian impact with the attacks against civilians by an entrenched Muammar Qaddafi in Libya – strengthens the case of cynical observers.
They note that R2P is nothing more than a label that world powers use whenever they deem convenient. By picking and choosing when to apply this humanity-rescuing doctrine, and by deciding not to act in Syria, the foundation of the concept is highly weakened.
It is possible, however, for the international community to adopt a “middle” strategy that combines “hard” and “soft” power. Such a strategy could facilitate the exit of Mr. Assad and help transition Syria out of the current internal strife.
To do this, the international community should keep up the pressure on the regime through political and economic sanctions. But it should also take active steps to politically engage with and support the opposition.
Western countries would not directly arm the rebels, but other regional actors, like Qatar and Kuwait, have indeed been assisting the opposition militarily. There should be pressure on these suppliers to tie their assistance to “conditionality”: weapons support in return for complying with international humanitarian law and refraining from reprisals and acts against the civilian population.
In addition, there should be a limited military involvement – ideally backed by the Arab League and carried out by a coalition of nations (given NATO’s firm refusal to get involved) – to create a humanitarian zone within Syria. Such a “safe zone” would offer some protection to civilians and also allow the opposition to regroup and grow stronger.
A zone of this type – enforced with air power and possibly even boots on the ground – can be criticized as a slippery-slope intervention that also weakens incentives for the parties to reach a negotiated agreement. And without the proper military commitment, such zones can be largely ineffective, a painful lesson from the international community’s involvement in Bosnia during the Yugoslav war.
However, in Syria, where a negotiated agreement is just not on the horizon and where all other options are failing, the humanitarian option, if backed by credible and significant military commitment, could have a positive impact on the population.
The military involvement would be limited and in line with the R2P criteria of intervention, focusing on civilian protection rather than on direct regime change, contrary to what was done in Libya. However, by creating a safe zone and supporting the opposition, the intervention could help shift the balance of power against Assad and his regime, facilitating its capitulation.
In absence of Security Council authorization for such a campaign, and given the international community’s general unwillingness to embark on an unauthorized military mission, the UN General Assembly could approve military involvement through a “uniting for peace” resolution. That would partly help to meet the R2P requirement of international authorization for the mission.
Finally, the international community should provide incentives for Assad to step down, for example by encouraging him to strike a deal with the opposition, where the president would capitulate, go into exile, and escape prosecution.
Although these “middle way” measures are far from perfect and have drawbacks and risks, they are preferable to today’s inaction. The status quo will only prolong the internal violence, keep alive a morally bankrupt and ultimately doomed regime, and fuel regional instability. A measured combination of hard and soft power will at least help to relieve the suffering of a captive population.
Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group. She is also the coauthor of the forthcoming book, “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press 2012).