Why no one is intervening in Syria (yet)

TW: killing of civilians; marginalization of Kurds, Palestinians, and Jews of Ethiopian ancestry; coerced sterilization

Yesterday, Amnesty International posed a question on twitter, or at least seemed to while promoting their most recent report on Syria. Their official account tweeted:

Amnesty International's tweet
(An Amnesty International tweet.)

That’s a fair question to ask, especially since, as the report claims, Syrians themselves are often asking it. It claims that one Syrian woman who the anonymous research spoke with wanted to know, “Why is the world doing nothing while we continue to be bombed to pieces every day, even inside our homes?”

As near as I can tell, one of the most pressing problems with intervening in Syria is that doing so appears likely to ignite a conflict as complicated and multifaceted as the first “World War” was for Europe. And this time, that would be after almost a century of technological refinements in weaponry. On the other hand, the problem with inaction, unfortunately, is that it seems only to reduce the risk of that outcome – not actually actively prevent it.

Map of Syria and its neighbors
(Syria and its neighbors, from here.)

Syria has a geopolitical context – it shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as a narrow maritime border that wouldn’t be terribly in the case of an intervening force having to enter Syria without land or air support from any of those five countries. Syria also has close ties with Iran, which is also the neighbor of both Turkey and Iraq. Having listed all those connections, let me explain – that is an incredibly diverse slice of the world covered in a mere seven countries. Along with that comes an incredibly diverse slice of on-going international conflicts that have in the past threatened all of the states governing those seven countries with destruction. In short, Syria is at the heart of a powderkeg.

Just to run down the events that have happened recently in that corner of the world:

-The Israeli and Iranian governments have begun speaking as if they are on the verge of starting a massive international war, which could potentially draw US, Chinese, and European support and proxies into the fray in a massive conflict between the “West” and the strongest “non-Western” nations in the world. Intervention by Iran would be read as an advance against Israel. Intervention by Israel or the US would be read as an advance against Iran. The balance of power necessary to prevent that outbreak of such a conflict in part requires that no one intervene in Syria, if not the freezing of the situation in Syria where it is.

-Within Israel, extremist factions have successfully lobbied for even more extensive segregation between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and the Israeli government has admitted to supporting the coercive sterilization of Jews with Ethiopian ancestry. These adds to the previous months of conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine, which has led to threats of another Intifada (active, potentially armed resistance by Palestinians) and highlighted the continuing conflict within Israeli communities over who qualifies as “properly” or “ideally” Israeli or Jewish. As a result, Israel seems particularly politically unstable at the moment and likely to make choices that are unwise in the long term.

-Turkey, which has long been plagued by undemocratic movements, has experienced a bit of panic over whether Islam has a growing political presence. This seems likely to herald both undemocratic restrictions on free religious expression and the growth of militant Islamism. This is pertinent to Syria as some of the opposition to the government is often couched in religious terms and much of the government’s violence is excused (as undemocratic acts in Turkey have been) as a preventative strategy against militant Islamists. Turkey, to some extent, finds itself fighting the same conflict as neighboring Syria, and is likely to have a stake in the outcome. That fact is complicated by the reality that Turkey has the support of NATO and much of the Western world in a way that Syria doesn’t and thus a trump card to play against Syria if the conflict is either willfully introduced into or accidentally threatens to spill over into Turkey. But Turkey also doesn’t want a destabilized Syria to serve as a training grounds and resupply territory for the increasingly intent Kurdish rebels.

In short, there are multiple ways for the conflict in Syria to ignite a broader religious conflict in the Middle East, to alter the ability of marginalized groups in Israel and Palestine to effectively protest their oppression, and to provide a means of militant Turks who want to guarantee the free expression of devout Muslims and Kurds within Turkey to militarily organize. The risks of intervention are not only that it will fail to actually improve the lives of Syrians, but that it will actively reduce the stability of almost every surrounding country.

But the conflict is already spilling into Iraq, with Syrian forces and anti-regime forces fighting in Iraq (and causing Iraqi civilian casualties). The Iraqi state is stuck in an even more reminiscent position of Syria’s government’s – as a Shia government finding itself in perpetual electoral and military conflict with various anti-government Sunnis. Both have at least some ties to Iran (although Syria’s are much stronger), and unlike Turkey, Iraq doesn’t have the means to have international actors demand that the conflict be prevented from spilling over. With all that in mind, the Iraqi government has started treating the Syrian soldiers injured in its territory. The field of conflict is broadening independent on Turkish, Israeli, Palestinian, and even Iranian interests in keeping Syria’s conflicts contained if not resolving them.

It’s worrisome to think that a better question for non-Syrians to ask themselves in the place of why they haven’t intervened in Syria is whether they will ultimately decide to intervene there and elsewhere in the future as the conflicts spreads.

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