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War-war when jaw-jaw fails?

By Benjamin Herscovitch - posted Friday, 18 May 2012

Despite a United Nations and Arab League-sponsored ceasefire agreement and the deployment of growing numbers of UN observers, Syrian troops continue to fire on civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross described conditions as localised civil war last week, further underscoring the Assad regime's disregard for the terms of the ceasefire agreement.

On Wednesday, 32 people were killed in violence across the country. This comes as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad executed 15 civilians.

After a year of largely inconsequential diplomatic posturing by the international community, the Assad regime's continued attacks on the Syrian people confirm that words count for little without big sticks. A further injection of realpolitik to the international community's response to the Syrian situation is therefore required.


There is little hunger for military involvement in Syria in the wake of the Libyan intervention, and Russian and Chinese intransigence remains a barrier. The international community should nevertheless heed calls for a more muscular response and reconsider its decisions to neither intervene militarily nor arm the Free Syrian Army.

Big stick foreign policy can admittedly be extremely costly. A 2011 study by Brown University suggested that 132,000 civilians had died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is further estimated that the costs of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan for the United States alone stand at more than US$800 billion and US$500 billion respectively.

Though staggering, the costs in blood and treasure of the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions need to be viewed in light of the nature of those interventions. Neither was precipitated by local anti-government movements, and both were spearheaded by North Atlantic nations.

The lack of regional support for regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular is worth emphasising. While the details of the breadth and depth of involvement remain unclear, Iran and Pakistan have fuelled the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively. With geo-strategic interests and ideological goals at odds with the international community's aims, Iran and Pakistan lent their support to destabilising forces like the Mahdi Army and the Haqqani Network.

Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the impetus for regime change in Syria was organic and indigenous, meaning that military assistance for opposition groups or military intervention would actually be welcomed. There has also been widespread regional support for concrete international action on Syria, including Saudi Arabia's calls to arm rebel groups and Turkey's repeated pleas for stronger UN Security Council resolutions.

The combination of broad-based indigenous and regional support for regime change suggests that the removal of the Assad regime could be achieved with comparative ease.


Pragmatic considerations aside, the scale of the bloodshed in Syria and the sheer brutality of the Assad regime arguably remain the most compelling grounds for sustained and substantial international involvement in the Syrian conflict. The UN estimates that more than 9,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the regime's attacks on its opponents since March last year. As the Assad regime's renewed assaults on civilians make painfully clear, more than mere censure is required to bring this killing to an end.

Although post-Assad Syria would likely experience a period of instability, and perhaps even internecine conflict, the status quo will not bring a peaceful settlement. As a former brigadier general in the Syrian Army, Akil Hashem, said recently, 'This stalemate will not end unless the international community intervenes militarily.'

To not consider either arming the Free Syrian Army or intervening militarily in some capacity would be pacifism at its most irresponsible.

While war, even if only in the form of a proxy war waged through military support, is rarely an appetising option, it may be the only recourse when diplomacy disappoints.

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Follow him on Twitter @B_Herscovitch.

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