Michael Walzer: Syria

It is painful to watch the Assad regime?s brutal repression of the Syrian opposition?especially painful since it looks increasingly likely that the repression will be successful. The demand for some form of military intervention to stop the repression makes a lot of sense?or would make sense if one could imagine a serious commitment from NATO or the Arab League or, for that matter, from the United States and a new ?coalition of the willing.? But I doubt that anyone is willing; I haven?t heard any proposals for intervention that sound serious. If there were to be an intervention, it would have to meet three critical requirements.

1) The intervening forces (I will call them ?we?) would need to pick one of the factions of the Syrian opposition and make sure that it emerged victorious?that it succeeded not only in overthrowing the Assad regime but also in defeating or incorporating all the other opposition factions. At the time of the Libyan intervention, we assumed that there was a single united opposition. This turned out to be wrong, and the result is a country radically divided among rival militias. An outcome of this sort in Syria would probably be much bloodier than Libya is today.

2) We would have to make sure that when the Syrian army collapses, its arsenal of weapons is seized and effectively controlled. Our Syrian allies would need to move quickly to establish a monopoly on the use of force. Again, we can learn from the Libyan experience, where the fall of the government was followed by a wide dispersal of its arsenal?to Niger, the Sinai, and Gaza. Syria has a much larger arsenal and far more dangerous weapons.

3) We would need to guarantee the physical safety of all the minorities in what is likely to be a Sunni-dominated Syria: Christians, Alawites, Druse, and probably the Kurds too, who are currently allied with the opposition but may come to regret the alliance. Consider the fate of Black Africans, both Libyan citizens and guest workers, after the fall of Qaddafi. We should make sure to avoid anything like that in Syria.

I have been reading only the New York Times and a few seemingly informed websites, so I have reservations about my own argument. But I can?t see any of these requirements being met without an intervention that puts ?boots on the ground.? And at this moment, nobody is ready for an intervention of that sort. Everybody wants a quick fix?weapons in the hands of the opposition (which opposition?) and airstrikes against Syrian military bases. One American general worried that this might lead to civil war. The advocates of intervention responded that there already is a civil war. I suspect that they are both wrong. A civil war is a war with two sides. What may already have begun in Syria, or what may happen if there is an intervention that meets none of the three requirements, is something more like what Thomas Hobbes called a “war of all against all.?

Hobbes believed that anarchy is worse than tyranny. I don?t think that his argument is true all the time and everywhere. It may or may not be true in Syria. But we do have to worry that it might be true when we argue about whether to intervene or not?and, even more importantly, when we argue about the kind of commitment that a successful intervention would require.

There are many reasons to long for the fall of Assad, and he adds to them every day. But these reasons haven?t yet led any country, any government, to join that second argument and give serious consideration to a serious intervention. I haven?t seen much in the magazines or the blogs that acknowledges what would be necessary and demands that some specific countries, preferably with proper names, actually do what is necessary. For myself, I believe (as I argued at the time of the Libyan intervention) that the list of interveners should include Arab countries (Turkey, this time, too), and that the boots on the ground have to include Arab boots. But that seems as unlikely now as it was in Libya a year ago.

So, I am skeptical about the value of a half-assed intervention.

Duggan | University of California Press Gardels