The case for foreign intervention in Syria (Intervention als kleineres Übel)

An article I wrote for WOZ while there was big fuss about US military intervention in Syria. That was the time  when Western anti-war activists took the streets rejecting foreign intervention, regardless of their silence on the massacres perpetrated by the regime in Syria over the last two years and a half

Syria cannot wait for more red lines

By Andrea Glioti

(Amuda- Syria)

dont bomb syria



The use of chemical weapons in Syria, the umpteenth ‘red line’ drawn by Barack Obama to postpone any kind of intervention, seems to have been crossed by the regime once again on Wednesday 21 in the countryside of Damascus (al-Ghutha al-Sharqiya wa al-Gharbiya). There is a lack of consensus among experts on whether chemical weapons have been used or not and the UN inspectors have been allowed to visit the site only on Tuesday 27.

Regardless of chemical weapons, Syrian civilians have been slaughtered in countless ways over the last two years and a half, but this has not prompted a firm response from the international community.

The first harsh comments I heard upon my return to Syria last April were uttered by an old lady walking into a grocery in Amuda: “We thought you would have helped us, but you Europeans left us on our own.”

I heard the same bitter accusations in Damascus in 2011, when the uprising was mainly peaceful, and then from refugees scattered across Lebanon, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I believe every Syrian abroad should blow himself up and kill civilians,” suggests laughing a Syria Telecom employee in Amuda, “maybe the international community would start caring about the destruction of our country

What has been the response of the international community to the slaughter of Syrian civilians until today? The UN Security Council is paralyzed by the undemocratic veto system reserved to its five permanent members, so that Russia and China succeeded in blocking any escalation against Damascus. Sanctions didn’t undermine the repressive apparatus, due to the military and financial support of its numerous international allies. The course of diplomacy has failed: the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi  insists on the roadmap to the Geneva II peace talks, even if no date has been set after months of meetings and the regime is stubborn on Bashar al-Asad staying in power at least until the elections scheduled in 2014, a condition clearly rejected by the opposition.

In order to brush off the guilt of more than 100.000 Syrian victims, the international community (i.e.: the UN, but also NGOs and media) started employing the term “civil war”, that means a ‘general amnesty’ putting the regime and the rebels on the same level.

 It is worth noting that no one in Syria talks about a “civil war” (harb ahliyya), most accept the terms revolution (thawra), whereas those supporting the Government prefer talking about “events” (ahdath) or “crisis” (‘azma). The prevailing vision is that of a country sacrificed at the hands of an international plot (mu’amara). If the supporters of the regime phrase this conspiracy as aimed at weakening the allegedly anti-Israeli  Syrian axis of the “resistance” (muqawama), the opposition talks about a conspiracy aimed at settling scores (tasfiya al-hisabat) at the expense of civilians: the reference is in particular to those armed groups financed by regional powers and rooted abroad like Hizbullah, Al-Qa’ida and the Kurdish PKK, who rose to prominence in the second year of the uprising.

This is to say that the international community cannot turn its eyes away by labelling the bloodshed a “civil war”, as if it was an internal strife whose responsibility is entirely Syrian.

The main argument of those opposing a Lybia-styled no-fly zone- as no one is supporting a “boots on the ground” option, not even the American republicans- is that it would throw the country in the hands of Al-Qa’idist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On the contrary, differently from Iraq, where the Shi’a Government installed by the American occupation provided Al-Qa’ida with the needed legitimacy, the rise of these experienced and well-funded groups at the expenses of moderate factions like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria has been a development of non-intervention and unbalanced warfare against a regime backed by the Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a Governments.

 “The regime sent ISIS here to eradicate the FSA,” told me a FSA commander in Ras al-‘Ayn, who is still fighting on the side of the ISIS against the Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units) affiliated to the PKK. Numerous Syrian dissidents accused the regime of having granted amnesty to radical Islamists in June 2011 in order to tarnish the reputation of the opposition: the FSA commanders are aware of the threat posed by the ISIS, but they prefer to avoid clashes before the overthrow of the regime.

The result of two years and a half of paralysis of the international community is that ideologically authoritarian militias like the ISIS and the YPG gained the upper hand in the liberated areas thanks to their military supremacy.

Those arguing against a no-fly zone stress how Libya descended into chaos after the NATO intervention, but is this slow-motion Syrian holocaust a better option? At least, a no fly-zone would extinguish the main source of civilian deaths: Government shelling. This is not meant to deny double standards on foreign intervention and that the US should also support Bahraini or Palestinian protesters, but Syria is left with two options to halt the massacre, due to the failure of the international community: Western military intervention or daily massacres consolidating the regime’s military supremacy, while it gains time from the preparation of sterile peace talks. Pragmatism is needed and a form of military intervention seems the lesser of two evils: those against it should come up with better options, as waiting is definitely not a good one.


18/3/2015 This piece came to my mind yesterday. Four years after the beginning of the Syrian uprising, I think my protracted staying inside Syria in 2013 and the prolonged paralysis of the international community in dealing with the Syrian tragedy prompted me to write this. Emotions played a role too: my undeniable empathy with the Syrian revolutionary cause. I still find hypocritical the position of those leftists who clearly sided with the Syrian regime under the pretext of ‘anti-imperialism’. Having said that, military interventions for humanitarian purposes are certainly biased and doomed to failure when they are unilaterally led by an imperialist force. In 2014, the US-led NATO coalition decided to intervene against ISIS, even though this organization clearly lags behind the Asad regime in terms of the civilian deaths caused in Syria. ISIS has been turned into the ideal boogeyman for the Western public, to the extent that there was no public outcry against the US intervention. Double standards? yes, and not only in the eyes of numerous Sunni Muslims. There is an urgent need to challenge the world powers’ hegemony on military interventions for humanitarian purposes (Russia falls in this category too, see Ukraine), but I cannot stand one-sided ‘stop the war’ coalitions and selective solidarity (see Kobane).

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