Editor's note: For a different view, see Anthony F. Lang, Jr's Syria: The Case for Punitive Intervention.
The lead opinion piece in the Financial Times of August 27 was titled "The moral case for intervention in Syria." The intervention in question is, of course, military, and the op-ed concluded, regretfully, that "There are no good options to resolve the threat that Mr. Assad poses to his own people and the wider world. But to do nothing would be the worst one of all."
This has been the mantra of the pro-interventionists all along; in the face of tens of thousands of deaths, something must be done. But, while understandable, it is wrong for a number of reasons, both moral and pragmatic.
First, it is surely trumped even on humanitarian grounds by the principle borrowed from medicine: first, do no harm—or, in this case, no greater harm than already done. Air strikes on Damascus and Homs, with every risk of civilian casualties, would almost certainly provoke an enraged response by government forces, and a conflict whose flames have already fanned into Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey could well sweep toward Israel (which constitutes the only strategic U.S. interest in the region). An even broader and perilous ripple effect would be felt if any Russians or Iranians were among the victims of an attack.
Second, what will two days of air strikes do, other than salve some consciences that "something" has indeed been done? The answer would seem to be that it would infuriate further Muslim-street opinion against the United States and the West without bringing the bloodshed of innocents to an end. There is already a degree of opprobrium in the Arab world over "waging war at 35,000 feet" via the use of drones, with what is euphemistically termed "collateral damage" to civilians.
Third, why send in the UN inspectors in the first place if an attack is, as seems all too clear with each passing day, inevitable? Is this to be a reprise of Iraq in 2003, when hostilities commenced even as inspectors were urgently asking for more time to do their work?
Fourth, as elsewhere noted in the same edition of the Financial Times, unlike Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, Syria is not a "friendless pariah state." The rationale, if it may be called such, of bypassing international law via a UN resolution, is that Russia would almost certainly apply a veto. May one ask what the response would be from the West if Russia were to wage war as it saw fit and to seek justification in the avoidance of a veto from the United States and its UN Security Council allies? Now we learn the British government has in fact crafted a Security Council resolution "authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians." This sounds distinctly familiar; UN Security Council Resolution 2011 on Libya evolved from protecting civilians to waging war; Russia signed on to the original intent, and will be understandably leery this time around.
Fifth, the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 is being widely invoked as a precedent for military action in Syria. It is a dubious association on many levels. "Illegal, yet legitimate," was the ethically challenged verdict of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. Illegal, [il]legitimate or not, NATO was here claiming the right to take preventive action in its own back yard; Serbia is self-evidently not Syria, most especially in terms of the spillover effect to a regional conflict; and the efficacy of the NATO action has been challenged, with the post facto ironic realization that the aerial bombing campaign against Serbia without "boots on the ground" actually lifted from Serbian President Milosevic whatever restraint came precisely from fear of a NATO attack—in fact, violence in Kosovo intensified afterwards. Finally, the sad truth is that post-conflict Kosovo remains, in the words of two expert observers in 2005 "a political and economic morass" with the rump Serbian population (one half of the 200,000 in 1999) living in UN-protected "isolated enclaves, fearful of reprisals by the provinces two million ethnic Albanians." "Of more recent vintage is an assessment in the Financial Times ("Unfinished business amid EU entry hopes", Neil Buckley, May 13, 2012): "North Kosovo remains a constant potential flashpoint—with fears that even a small spark could ignite a conflagration."
As Russian President Putin has starkly warned, military action absent absolute proof that chemical weapons were used, and that it was the regime who employed them, is a dangerous and foolhardy ratcheting up of tensions between the United States and Russia—a critically important relationship already strained by such relatively trivial distractions as the Magnitsky and Snowden episodes. This, like NATO expansion in the 90s and the bombing of Serbia in 1999, is a truly big deal. Which leads to the observation that there is one more option: concerted Western/Russian efforts to an immediate cessation of hostilities and of arms shipments from all quarters, including Russia, to both sides in the conflict; and negotiations, without preconditions, for a post-war Syria. This was first advanced by Moscow over a year ago, and was basically agreed upon by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at their meeting in June. It remains on the table, for an unspecified date in Geneva, obscured by the current dangerous drumbeat to war.
"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war" is attributed to Sir Winston Churchill.