Unanswered Questions About Syria Intervention

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a strong proponent of military intervention in Libya, is now, with some caveats, pushing for international intervention in Syria.

Yet her argument raises important, unanswered questions:

1) She asserts that R2P will have a deterrent effect on other dictators:

If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term; that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring; it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place.

Is there any empirical evidence for that claim? The contrary idea that dictators will not be deterred seems very plausible. If engaged in a domestic fight for survival, would a dictator be able to avoid coercion? Even if the fear of international intervention increases over time, regime survival is a powerful countervailing force.

2) If the point is to intervene to stop killings by the current dictator, does external military intervention make human right abuses less likely down the road? Does it make democratization more likely? If the United States led an intervention in Syria, would that make a post-Assad liberal, democratic regime more or less likely? Looking to Libya, it is too soon to tell. Iraq remains a question mark.

Much of the research on this questions looks at the impact of military intervention on democratization. The scholarly record is not a ringing endorsement of Slaughter’s position:

Experience with U.S. military intervention broadly conceived has no statistically significant impact on democracy within target states. Active U.S. support for free and fair elections during military interventions, on the other hand, has a positive and statistically significant impact on democracy. (Peceny, 1999, page 550)

If the past is any guide for the contemporary era, however, we are left with the uncomfortable truth that most liberal interventions have failed to lead to successful democratization. (Pickering and Peceny, 2006, 556)

The analysis shows that in the short run, democratic intervention does indeed promote democratization and that this relationship is robust to the control variable most frequently invoked in studies of democratization. However, the relationship is only apparent in the first year following the onset of an intervention. When including the entire period of the intervention and its aftermath, we do not find any strong relationship. (Gleditsch, Christiansen & Hegre, 2007, 40-41)

There is a range of research on the topic (and more relevant stuff on Foreign-Imposed Regime Change coming via Alexander Downes)(or his article here). It does not all address situations where the intervention is for one side in a civil war. Does much of it back Slaughter’s claim?

3) If the point is to protect civilians in the face of a brutal regime, why not choose the population in the world most in need of protection? Why Syria as opposed to Bahrain? Central African Republic? Zimbabwe? North Korea? Uzbekistan? The choice of Syria, in the heart of the Middle East, in the aftermath of Libya, smacks of humanitarian imperialism, “as a convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics,” precisely because so many countries seem to have been ruled out a priori.

4) Finally, Slaughter is very selective in the examples she chose to list. How about if we compare her list of killer regimes (“Governments’ systematic abuse of their own citizens have either caused or presaged countless conflicts around the world”) with cases where intervention has been disastrous, in human and strategic terms, or at least played out very differently than expected. Here are some other examples to think about in tandem with Slaughter’s list:

a) US-led intervention (2003) to topple Saddam Hussein

b) French and US interventions in Indochina/Vietnam

c) Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

d) the French war in Algeria

e) US intervention in Afghanistan

f) Algerian military’s rejection of an Islamist electoral victory (not an intervention but probably a useful example to have as well)

From this list, we should remember that intervention is often much longer and much bloodier than expected. Civilians, maybe hundreds of thousands, often die. What leaders say going in is often totally wrong. They tend to assume the best. Demographic heterogeneity can create further difficulties. It is hard to get out. Local “allies” may be no less brutal than the regime the external intervention opposed or toppled.

One underlying belief Slaughter seems to hold is that the United States has a powerful ability to control events. I think we should be very wary of relying on that idea – about the United States or any other intervener – too strongly. I would have hoped the debacle in Iraq had done damage to that certainty about running interventions. The world is far trickier and more uncertain than interventionists like to admit.


4 thoughts on “Unanswered Questions About Syria Intervention

  1. Pingback: Why deny Syria is in a civil war? | Mideast Matrix

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  3. Pingback: Articles tirés de Syria Comment et autres | syriafrance

  4. Pingback: Message to US: Stay out! Rush in! | Mideast Matrix

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