The Unintended Consequences of International Inaction in Syria Reply

Russia and China stand to lose from inaction, but do they realize what’s at stake?

By Horia M. Dijmarescu

The United States, in concert with other governments that have deplored the Assad regime’s attacks on civilians, has enumerated a laundry list of the consequences of inaction on the part of the international community. Indeed it is likely that inaction will lead to more civilian deaths and a continued outpouring of refugees whose presence may destabilize fragile neighboring states, and the prolonged and intense nature of the violence makes the prospect of a third-party-mediated settlement nearly impossible.

In addition to these rather obvious consequences, the public debate among members of the international community has not adequately addressed a few others, the long-term effects of which may be significant.

First, states that reject the call to intervention on the basis of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) risk creating a dangerous precedent. Russia and China have consistently used the UN Security Council as a forum through which to protect the Assad regime against Western intervention – in doing so, they believe, they are protecting a norm of non-intervention based on the principle of state sovereignty. As fighting in Syria does not appear to be attenuating and as international incidents (i.e. the shooting down of a Turkish jet by the Syrian Air Force, the spilling over of the conflict into Lebanon, and growing refugee flows out of Syria) punctuate what is otherwise still a relatively localized conflict, the Western calls for intervention and Syrian calls for aid may very well increase.

What will happen to the norms Russia and China are trying to protect if NATO, et al. decide to intervene without Security Council authorization? Not only will non-intervention based on sovereignty be further eroded by R2P-based intervention, but the only forum in which Russia and China have the legal authority to limit such interventions (implicitly including in conflicts to which they are parties) will be left increasingly irrelevant.

And since the inaction of the international community with respect to Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s helped R2P become an emergent norm, it is possible that inaction in Syria now will have a similar effect: to shake the conscience of a world of bystanders, whose guilt may lead them to enshrine new international norms of intervention, or to solidify currently emerging ones. The death of each Syrian civilian makes the present converge with that aforementioned future. The advocates for future intervention will be increasingly empowered and their critics ignored.

Second, states that are calling for international action are not spelling out in great detail the implications associated with a relatively weak rebel movement that seeks arms, finances, and moral support from non-Western sources. The development of an alliance between Syrian rebels seeking aid and enemies common to Assad and the West who can provide such aid (i.e. Salafi extremists with ties to al-Qaeda) could have disastrous policy implications for Western relations with Syria should Assad be ousted. To underline this threat may be counterproductive in convincing Russia and China to support intervention. Both countries seem aware that the West stands to gain from Assad’s fall at the hands of pro-West rebels.

But what if the opposite happens? It would not be difficult to hypothesize a situation in which the Syrian rebels seek to join forces with Assad’s enemies who are friends of the West (i.e. Turkey, who, notwithstanding its stated “No Problems with Neighbors” policy, seeks to be a regional power). In this case, rather than capitalizing on—and indeed, leading—intervention, Russia and China would allow a third party (not their own governments, or the predictable rival: NATO) to become an influencing actor in a new Syrian regime. 

Third, a collapse of the Ba’ath regime in Syria could transform the Syrian-Israeli conflict as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kissinger’s old quote, “No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria,” may still hold true. The consequences of Assad’s ouster for Hezbollah, Hamas, and even Fatah, could be profound, particularly if those who attain power find a negotiated return of the Golan Heights to be an effective way to solidify and legitimate their rule. To achieve a peace that eluded their predecessors, and in exchange for that peace possible receive millions of dollars in reconstruction assistance from a US administration interested in bolstering its Mid-East peace credentials, could give a new Syrian regime bragging rights as a moderate force seeking long-term stability. It is not clear how those opposed to Assad would act towards Israel, and it is certainly not guaranteed that their counterparts in Jerusalem would seize opportunities that might arise. 

Throughout this discussion of some of the possible unintended consequences of international inaction with respect to Syria – and this is by no means an exhaustive list – only one thing is certain: The status quo cannot persist. It is simply too unstable. And when systems are in disequilibrium, something has to give. In this case, it seems, at least for now, the international community has chosen an anarchic breakdown over a managed one. The consequences of this decision, for the Syrian people who will continue to suffer, for diplomatic relations between Assad’s successors and the rest of the world, which may grow more distant and for future norms of intervention to protect civilians, may be disastrous. 

Horia M. Dijmarescu is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University in Washington, D.C. and is an alumnus of Michigan State University. Horia has researched at the United States Institute of Peace, AU’s School of International Service, the Intercultural Management Institute, and MSU’s Center for Integrative Studies in Social Science. The views represented in his writing do not represent those of his employer(s).

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