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Con: Direct intervention by U.S. could turn grievous situation into utter disaster

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John B. Quigley
April 26, 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Should the United States use military force to intervene in Syria?”

Nothing done to date by the international community in Syria seems to be working. The Kofi Annan plan for a cease-fire showed some initial success, but fighting continues. Even if the government of Syria was inclined to pull its army back from the cities, the ceasefire is only a short-term solution to stop the killing. For closure to the situation, one needs a plan whereby either Bashar al-Assad’s government would resign or some accommodation would be worked out with the opposition.


But Assad is not inclined to communicate with the opposition, and the opposition is not inclined to communicate with him. From the opposition’s standpoint, a ceasefire helps the Syrian government more than it helps them. If their aim is to overthrow Assad by military means, a ceasefire means their defeat.


This impasse opens the door to an argument that the international community should intervene militarily in some fashion. The Western powers are already pressuring the government through diplomatic and economic means, but to date to little effect.


Coming out of the recent Friends of Syria conference, the United States and Middle Eastern powers that include Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are stepping up aid to the armed resistance groups. Under American leadership, the conference pledged $100 million to provide salary payments to rebel fighters. But perhaps they should do more.


The logic of that argument, however, is far from obvious. The fact that nothing else has worked does not necessarily mean that more should be done. The concept of “Responsibility to Protect”—the idea of recent origin that the international community should protect a population from its own government—was invoked in Libya. But that concept includes one critical criterion. Any proposed action holds the prospect of bringing more good than the harm that inevitably accompanies military action. What, then, is feasible in Syria?


“Safe zones” are being suggested along the borders of Syria. But “safe zones” involve major risks. If you assemble people who want to get away from government control, you may make it easier for them to be killed. That is what happened in 1995 when a “safe zone” was set up in Srebrenica, Bosnia. The internationals on the scene were not up to maintaining security, and a major genocide resulted.


With “safe zones” in Syria, the international forces would have to defend them to protect fleeing civilians. Internationally defended lines would be tempting grounds for resistance fighters to retreat behind after their attacks, and that would increase the risk to civilians sheltering there. In any event, the United States should not lead. Any effort will have more credibility if the United States is in the background. But a recent assessment by the Obama administration concluded that the United States would have to be at the center of any military action because of the technological capacity it could bring to bear.


The resistance is not unified. Its goals apart from overthrowing Assad are unclear. Giving them the wherewithal to fight better may just turn what we now see into full-scale civil war in which the resistance elements might still be at a disadvantage militarily.


Overthrowing a government based in a minority population may open the way to ethnic reprisals. Syria’s Christians and the Alawites are reportedly frightened at the possibility of regime change. They fear reprisals and discrimination, along the lines of what Iraq has experienced with cross-group recriminations.


The U.N. Security Council has called for negotiations. Disunity on the rebel side will complicate this effort. Difficult as it may be to bring the parties together, negotiations for a political transition offer the best hope. Once everyone realizes that the standoff will not end to anyone’s advantage, they may, however reluctantly, be willing to talk.


John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Readers may write to him at Moritz College Law, 55 W. 12th St., Columbus, Ohio 43210.

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