As the crisis in Syria worsens, the calls for military intervention are getting louder. However, the prospect of foreign military involvement remains fraught with problems, not least the fact that Russia and China would most certainly veto any such resolution in the Security Council.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was recently on a European tour, and the situation in Syria was a key point of discussion. However, European countries remain largely divided over the efficacy of military intervention in Syria. The fact remains the military intervention in Syria or Iran cannot be localized, with many Arab countries in turmoil as a result of the uprisings and extremism, a larger regional conflict is simply inevitable.
In addition to the economic pressures, there are several other reasons why European countries that had participated in the Libyan campaign earlier, now feel reluctant. It is almost certain that Russia and China would veto such a movement in the Security Council, and few countries would be willing to act without the consensus of a UN resolution behind them. Moreover, US itself is double minded and apparently does not want another entrenched engagement when it is extricating itself from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, last week’s massacre in the Syrian town of Houla has seen the calls for military intervention renewed with increased fervor, as the toll from the unrest there continues to rise. The consequences of potential military action in Syria have staid many actors from pursuing the path.
Most governments are in fact extremely cautious since their many unknowns. The state of affairs of the country are much more complex than that of Libya. There is no comparison to that case, for two main reasons:
There is no cohesion in the Syrian opposition, and hence no answer to the question of who would take over if Assad were overthrown.
Secondly, the Syrian Army is not only much better trained than the Libyan forces but well armed as well. This may be due to its long-standing relationship with Russia. Additionally, and the nexus of conflict is in urban centers rather than the more spread out terrain, as was witnessed in Libya.
The most critical concern is the spread of unrest into neighboring countries, like Turkey and particularly to fragile Lebanon and Iraq. The probability of a proxy war between Iran and other regional players is quite high in case a regime change scenario plays out, which will most certainly result in a wider sectarian war.
China, Russia And European Disunity
Thus, there is recognition of the risks involved in pursuing a military intervention in Syria. The major dilemma is that nothing else seems to be working and the initial optimism for the Annan plan also appears to have faded after the Houla massacre.
While US has come out with a strong condemnation of the Russian and Chinese positions, from the perspective of China and Russia, they do not want a repeat of the Libyan experience and towards application of military means towards regime change.
In this light, Hilary Clinton’s tour of Scandinavia was an attempt to win the support of these states, particularly as there is no stomach in the US or in Europe for another unilateral intervention.
This may be a difficult task, however, given that Europe is swamped in its own economic crisis, and governments are stretched as it is. Already it appears that Germany has agreed with Russia that military route is not an option. As Russian President Vladimir Putin met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Friday, Merkel stated that,
“We both [Putin] made clear that we are pushing for a political solution, that the Annan plan can be a starting point but that everything must be done in the United Nations Security Council to implement this plan. There is a need to find a convergence of these interests and have them sit down at a negotiating table. That’s the direction we are going to work in.”
Hollande was a little less clear as to whether France would consider Libyan style intervention or not, but stated that removing Assad was “a prerequisite for a political transition” and that “there must be sanctions” against his government. “Bashar al-Assad’s regime has conducted itself in an unacceptable and intolerable manner. It has committed acts that disqualify itself [from ruling]” he continued.
On the other hand, UK has been less kind to Russia, accusing it of ‘fence sitting’ and placing responsibility at its door, like US, should Syria descend into civil war. The fear is that with or without an intervention, the country is descending into a civil war, with violence spreading across the borders.
There is no easy answer when it comes to Syria. The challenge is that in other instances in the recent past when military means were used, political alternatives were available to achieve the desired ends. In the case of Syria, political alternatives are not working while there is little appetite for another military intervention.