The Leadership Dilemma Reply

Military intervention seems like the inevitable conclusion for the war in Syria — but is it the right conclusion? 

By Carlos Rafael Colon

By and large, the recent Syrian ceasefire existed in name only, with low expectations for success from the onset. The recent opinion piece “Too Little, Too Late,” written by Jerusalem Review Staff Writer Dan Yonker outlined many valid points as to why latest failure beckons a military intervention either through humanitarian assistance or invoking NATO’s Article V.  However, Yonkers overlooks a crucial factor in his argument — the composition of Syria’s opposition, made up largely of various factions and foreign fighters. In response, it is first important to point out that Syria is not Libya. Any intervention would have to take into account the roles Russia, China, and Iran would play. In addition to this, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile could upset analysts’ calculations. These factors provide a stronger incentive for leadership coalition. According to a United Nations investigator, the growing presence of Islamic fundamentalist fighters is among the most alarming trends in Syria’s civil war, and a advocating a military intervention that does not address this pressing concern is dangerously flawed.  Moreover, a military intervention conducted amid such a fragmented opposition, plagued with infighting and forms of radicalism, opens the door to sectarian warfare, reprisal killings, and a rise in extremism in post-Assad Syria. Furthermore, the new video showing anti-government fighters kicking and summarily executing a group of frightened loyalist soldiers not only widens the split among rebel groups but raises the question: who will lead Syria in the post-Assad era?

Highlighting the importance of having a visible leader, the United States has already pulled its support from the opposition Syrian National Council to search for an alternative. Simply put, a greater degree of leadership is required before any military intervention is decided. Additionally, while media and public debates tend to focus on the downfall of Assad, serious discussion questioning the legitimacy of the opposition is largely absent. To be clear, I do not support the actions of the Assad regime, but it is important to look at the situation in its entirety. As the conflict further plunges into the worst-case scenario, simply asking for an objective approach has become a tall task. Blood has been spilled, lives have been lost, judgments have been clouded by emotion, and war crimes have been committed (on both sides). And, quite frankly, the mainstream media, the activists, the fighters on each side, and the common citizens have already picked sides.

The United Nations has accused the Syrian army and the shabiha for the atrocities behind the Houla massacre, but without any conclusive evidence isn’t it possible that the massacre was a false-flag operation? The Syrian rebels have been supported by various countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, with Barack Obama allegedly signing a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to oust Assad earlier this year. But isn’t it possible that these actions are supporting, arming, and financing al Qaeda death squads? The escalating conflict between Damascus and Ankara is now being used to frame an argument where the attacks provide a legal justification for NATO intervention. But how justified is it?

Turkey did lose a fighter plane to Syrian air defenses in June 2012, but didn’t the Turkish warplane, a F-4 Phantom jet to be exact, violate Syrian airspace? The recent Syrian artillery strike that killed Turkish citizens worsened the situation and, as a consequence, made NATO an even more likely actor in the Syrian civil war. However, with Turkey admittedly harboring units of the Free Syrian Army and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border, why wouldn’t Turkey be a legitimate target for the Assad regime?

Given the current state of the fractured opposition and the level of ambiguity in Syria actions regarding Turkey as well as domestically, threatening to invoke Article V as self-defense is not a wise-decision. It has to be understood that Article V has only been invoked once in NATO’s history, after the attack on September 11, 2001. The issues between Syria and Turkey don’t compare, in terms of a legal justification, to that of 9/11. Intervening militarily without an established opposition leader will leave the peace process for a post-Assad Syria in shambles. In How Wars End, Gideon Rose observes that ‘‘[t]ime and again throughout history, political and military leaders have ignored the need for careful postwar planning or approached the task with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.’’ It is hard to stomach, and even more difficult to accept, but we always have to focus on what comes after. Just recently, Syria’s fragmented groups have already begun negotiations (once again) to forge a unified opposition, in Doha, Qatar.

Let’s hope for the best.

Carlos Rafael Colon is a research intern at the International Center for Terrorism Studies and currently co-manages umassdrone.org, a targeted killing database focused on exploring the casualties inflicted by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. His views are his own and do not reflect those of his employers.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/VOA

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