Why haven’t we intervened in Syria? Is Iraq to blame? Is Libya?

Ben Mitchell argues that the examples of Iraq and Libya are scaring western governments from intervening in Syria - and maybe that’s a good thing, he says.


If ever there was a case for backing some form of military intervention, what’s happening in Syria is surely it, right?

If only it were that simple. In fact, maybe it is that simple.

How many more people have to die, have to be terrorised and slaughtered, in order for the world to do something, other than condemn (do you really think President Assad gives two hoots what the world thinks?), and impose sanctions after yet more sanctions?

UN estimates have put the death toll since last March’s uprising at around 5,400. Last month, with fears over accuracy, and due to the body count escalating at such an alarming rate, they chose to suspend keeping track.

According to human rights groups and activists on the ground, a figure in excess of 7,000 is more likely.

The Assad regime and his cronies have now been accused of committing “crimes against humanity”.

Reliable evidence has laid out many of the atrocities being carried out in the city of Homs and elsewhere:

“…army snipers and Shabbiha gunmen [from pro-Assad militias] posted at strategic points terrorised the population, targeting and killing small children, women and other unarmed civilians. Fragmentation mortar bombs were also fired into densely populated neighbourhoods.

“Security agencies continued to systematically arrest wounded patients in state hospitals and to interrogate them, often using torture, about their supposed participation in opposition demonstrations or armed activities.”

What Assad is doing in Homs is surely what Gaddafi had threatened to do in Benghazi had the West not intervened?

Which then exposes two often cited criticisms of Western foreign policy: hypocrisy and inconsistency. Why did we intervene in Libya, but steered clear of Yemen, or Bahrain, or, for the moment, Syria?

Some reports suggested that the US gave its tacit approval for a Saudi Arabia backed crackdown on protesters in Bahrain last year. Only two weeks ago, we hear that the UK has continued to sell arms totalling over £1 million to the Bahraini regime, coming merely months after its internal repression.

There’s your hypocrisy and inconsistency beautifully summed up.

Some we back, some we arm, then we oppose, then we attack, and then we arm again. Isn’t that how it goes?

And, surely Iraq has sullied our appetite for intervention? I think the absolute horror of what we did in Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, the mess we created, the unspeakable loss of life, serves as a (still ongoing) reminder of what damage we can do if we put our minds to it.

Without Iraq and Afghanistan, action would probably be far more forthcoming in Syria. Then again, I believe Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with humanitarian intervention and so it’s unfair to compare the two – which makes what’s happening in Syria, and our seemingly impotent response, all the more tragic.

And yet, as in most cases, what we do in Syria isn’t clear cut. If it was, a more robust approach may have been in the offing by now.

Despite what looks like a one-sided massacre to the outside world, Navi Pillay, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, has characterised it as civil war. But, she also warned that the UN Security Council’s failure to come up with a resolution has re-energised and emboldened Assad.

The first thing to say is that Syria isn’t Libya.

There is no united opposition to arm, no Syrian version of the Libyan National Transitional Council:

“[Libya] is a nation of six and a half million people, while [Syria] consists of more than 20 million. Unlike Libya, Syria’s densely populated cities and towns are a mix of ethnic and religious communities; the country cannot be spliced into pro-rebel east and pro-dictator west.”

Even within the different opposition groups, opinions remain divided, as to what type, if any, of outside support is desired.

The Economist has argued that ‘a focus on firepower’ would merely play into Assad’s hands:

“…the grounds on which he would most like to fight are military. Foreign bombing would satisfy outsiders’ urge to do something – anything – to show their outrage. But even in Libya, which had a front-line and a terrain more vulnerable to aerial attack, bombing took a long time to weaken Qaddafi’s forces. In Syria it would have less military value.”

It could also be argued that inside Syria there is no overwhelming desire to see Assad deposed.

An opinion poll conducted last December showed that 55 per cent of Syrians still want Assad in power; however, three important caveats should be attached to this finding:

• Firstly, fear about the future of the country was one of the principal reasons behind this figure. Not necessarily direct and unconditional support for Assad;

• Secondly, a lot has happened in the past couple of months. A poll carried out today may well show very different results;

• Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, it was revealed over the weekend, that the poll of just over 1,000 people, covered those from 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Only 98 of those who answered were in fact from Syria, a tiny sample.

Finally, and perhaps most decisively, intervention may only intensify the killing and result in even more bloodshed, as critics say was the case in Libya.

Casualties of the Libyan conflict have been hard to verify due to a lack of independent and rigorous monitoring.

Before NATO’s involvement in March last year, estimates put the dead at a couple of thousand. According to the Libyan government, around 30,000 eventually died (from both sides), with 50,000 injured, by the end of its six month war. This includes anything between 13,000 and 17,000 civilian deaths.

It’s extremely telling, and hugely depressing, that NATO forces never formally counted the dead. The invasion was, after all, to protect civilians.

Then there were also the widely reported reprisals that were waged, after the toppling of Gaddafi, against black African migrants living in Tripoli, many accused of working for Gaddafi as ‘mercenaries.’

All this demonstrates how fraught with danger military action is.

Meanwhile, Assad continues to pulverise the people of Homs, with the West uncertain as to what to do next, and a litany of failed and discredited (humanitarian) interventions behind it.

Maybe, as argued on these pages this week, it’s time we left it for others to sort out.

See also:

Liberal intervention shouldn’t be confined to the WestJames Hallwood, February 20th 2012

Syria: There is no simple solutionGeorge Irvin, February 15th 2012

As order breaks down in Syria, its Christians suffer the consequencesEd Jacobs, February 7th 2012

Syria: When will the West act?Shamik Das, January 2nd 2012

Syria: Four reasons why Bashar al-Assad will probably surviveShashank Joshi, May 11th 2011

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16 Responses to “Why haven’t we intervened in Syria? Is Iraq to blame? Is Libya?”

  1. Francis Hoar

    A ridiculous post:complains about impotence in Syria,then agrees little we can do&accepts distinction betwSyria/Libya: http://t.co/J543uhxQ

  2. keith ferguson

    Why haven’t we intervened in Syria? Is Iraq to blame? Is Libya? http://t.co/1hEE6DO1 by @bmitchellwrites #Syria #FreeSyria

  3. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Why haven’t we intervened in Syria? Is Iraq to blame? Is Libya? http://t.co/OWL8j8Cu

  4. Ben Mitchell

    RT @leftfootfwd: Why haven’t we intervened in Syria? Is Iraq to blame? Is Libya? http://t.co/1EAhvcUO

  5. Jo Oldale

    Thing is… do people ever thank you for bombing their country? Can you ever achieve equality and peace that way? Look at what’s going down in Libya.

  6. Ben Mitchell

    Why haven’t we intervened in Syria? Is Iraq to blame? Is Libya? http://t.co/1hEE6DO1 by @bmitchellwrites #Syria #FreeSyria

  7. HaywoodsLocalVoice

    Its more cowardly than that, yes things are dire in Syria, but the armed forces in Syria are armed to the teeth with surface to air missiles, 300,000 well trained and well equipped troops. They have modern jet fighters, radar defenses, and a well equipped Navy. The Syrian armed froces would be a good match for our forces. They have hardened experienced battle units and could conceivably easily shoot our aircraft from the skies, our ships from the sea, and repel anything but an overwhelming invasion force.
    Our Politicians are too scared of committing troops against a foe who may be able to fight back on their own terms. They have no stomach for thousands of RAF Lynham repatriations of dead bodies. This is just bluster and bull, they will leave the Syrian people to suffer because they are two faced hypocrites when it comes to supporting freedom.
    The second reason is simple too, the Armed forces leaders have told the MOD and Cameron simply that if they get involved heavily in Syria, they may loose the Falklands, this vast over commitment of forces struggling with cuts would be an open door to the Argentinians to try again, without an aircraft carrier we would find it difficult to regain them if lost.

  8. HaywoodsLocalVoice

    RT @leftfootfwd: Why haven’t we intervened in Syria? Is Iraq to blame? Is Libya? http://t.co/qOR2FhQa

  9. HaywoodsLocalVoice

    see my comment for my take on why we haven't and will not do anything to tangle with Syria http://t.co/pCmjDqK3

  10. Paul Erickson

    Left Foot Forward: Why haven't we intervened in #Syria? Is #Iraq to blame? Is #Libya? http://t.co/QSrSsZkb #Mideast

    Different case. #WWIII?

  11. Danny Llewellyn

    For Libya we had a UN mandate for a no-fly zone after a vote on which China and Russia abstained. This time both China and Russia vetoed the draft resolution. The Syrian government has managed to convince the Russians and Chinese (and potentially others) that what is occurring inside the country is a battle against foreign-aided insurgents.

    This episode shows that powerful members of the council are not merely uncomfortable with contemplating coercive measures with respect to events in Syria, but are also uncomfortable with any hint of taking sides (even when powerful regional actors are asking them to). The council’s shift away from impartiality, so evident in Côte D’Ivoire and Libya, is being “corrected” by those who see themselves as the guardians of how the UN should approach conflicts inside sovereign states.

  12. Owen Williams

    We already get their oil and they want/have our firearms #syria #bbcqt http://t.co/T7nOBCs0

  13. حليمة

    We already get their oil and they want/have our firearms #syria #bbcqt http://t.co/T7nOBCs0

  14. Macros The Black

    MT @leftfootfwd: On #Syria, read @bmitchellwrites' article this week exploring reason why we haven’t intervened: http://t.co/d3sa2479 #BBCqt

  15. Chilwell Politics

    Read @bmitchellwrites' article exploring the reasons why we haven’t yet intervened: http://t.co/eCmiCbgJ @james_wand @StaceyStace__ @TRofKN

  16. Syria: International paralysis | Speaker's Chair

    […] been accused of a dereliction of duty in not bothering to count the dead after its intervention. Casualty figures before and after have been virtually impossible to […]

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