Summary and Review of Chatham House paper – ‘Syria: Prospects for Intervention’

Summary and Review of Chatham House paper – ‘Syria: Prospects for Intervention’

Conflict in Syria is escalating by the day, with scenes of armed combat in Damascus and Aleppo sparking a cacophonous call for overt international intervention from within and outside Syria. Given both the defiance of President Assad to remain in government regardless of intensifying domestic and international outcry and the seemingly unshakeable will of the national insurgent movement, it is difficult to predict how, or indeed when, the hostilities in Syria will end. Chatham House, a London-based think tank, produced a useful report during the summer dealing with the situation and the prospects for international intervention.

The report can be considered of particular value for its identification of the key players in the conflict, for its emphasis on existing covert action by international forces and for its outline of the options for foreign intervention. Below is a short summary of the report produced, followed by a final review of recent developments since its publication.

Participants in the Chatham House Meeting which produced this report agreed that a diplomatic resolution of the tensions between the Syrian government and the collective opposition (comprising both the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)) is highly unlikely as the situation currently stands. They began by identifying the main actors in the Syrian civil war. The government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, is still officially in power though on-the-ground intelligence suggests an accelerated weakening of its control as defections of high-level government figures continue and the rebel forces, though fragmented, become more widespread in their common cause. The SNC is the principal political opposition group of the Syrian government, established in August 2011 in Turkey. Three core groups form the SNC: the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ‘Kurdish Future Movement Party Kurds’. Though united in their desire for the defeat of the Syrian regime, the distinct differences in profile and interests of all three factions have proved an obstacle in maintaining the consistency of the SNC’s message. Finally, the FSA comprises Syrian national army defectors and, more recently, civilians. Whether citizens are joining the movement for vigilante purposes or are being forced to do so remains unclear. The diversity of groups within the opposition has been alternatively described as a major weakness and a positive multiplier of the collective effort to oust al-Assad and put an end to the regime.

According to the report, a key conclusion of the Meeting lay in the recognition that while more overt international action continues to be debated in the global forum, it is clear that covert intervention by various regional and international actors has already ensued. Such action has taken two forms: financial backing and the supply of weaponry, and political support. On the one hand, it is widely reported that Turkey and Gulf countries Qatar and Saudi Arabia are actively supporting the FSA, though details of financial backing and the provision of arms are private and therefore unverifiable. However, the Gulf countries’ exact stance on Syria is irresolute, as they simultaneously view a regime change in Syria as a major setback for Iran (their main regional rival) but are concerned about the wider effect of the rise of popularly elected Islamist governments in the Arab world. On the other hand, Western nations such as the U.S. and the U.K. are maintaining political, but ostensibly non-lethal support for the Syrian opposition. This comprises intelligence, training to deploying units, communications equipment, humanitarian aid, medical supplies, assistance to refugees and support to Syrian human rights groups. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed on the 10th August 2012 that the UK would provide an auxiliary £5million in support of the FSA. Internationally, growing concerns are being voiced regarding Iran’s support of the Syrian regime, though it has been widely acknowledged that such support derives mainly from Iranian self-interest in maintaining the resistance front against the West and Gulf countries. Furthermore, as Iran has not hitherto committed any major resources to shoring up al-Assad nor has it allocated any significant financial aid to the government, its clout in supporting the regime is considered limited.

What, then, are the options for international invention, and what is the likelihood of either of them taking place? Similar to on-going covert action, there are two principal choices: explicit non-military intervention, or military intervention. Non-military intervention would primarily include the further imposition of sanctions on Syria (the EU has already imposed 17 rounds since 2011, ranging from financial sanctions to embargoes on Syrian oil exports), greater encouragement of political desertion and capital flight (though this is most certainly already happening where possible) as well as the bolstering of international support provided to refugees and the securing of borders. However, overt provision of artillery to the FSA is only serving to exacerbate the armed combat taking place in densely populated areas and it is difficult, therefore, to envisage how effective non-military intervention would be.

The second and much more contentious option is military intervention. Participants in the Meeting collectively agreed that that a full-scale invasion or mammoth peace-keeping operation was unlikely. NATO forces are otherwise occupied in Afghanistan, the White House has been engrossed in the presidential election of late and recently re-elected President Obama is thought unlikely to launch any large-scale foreign action so soon into his new term, particularly given the economic situation in the U.S., Europe is grappling with the seemingly interminable sovereign debt and financial crises, and, perhaps most pertinently, Chinese and Russian resistance to intervention remains robust. Both nations fear that any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mandate authorising international action could be used as a pretext for regime change, drawing on the experience of Libya. Though the UN General Assembly has recently condemned international failure to act over Syria, the UNSC has not yet approbated any international intervention and to that end many countries are reluctant to act. Furthermore, Afghanistan in the 1980s demonstrated that in providing weaponry, countries are indirectly engaging in military intervention and can be accused of aiding and abetting the slaughter of civilians. There also remains the incontestable fact that although its authority is being buffeted by the day, the Syrian government is still officially in power and international intervention is support of the opposition could be viewed as an attack on Syrian sovereignty. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that should the risk of the Syrian government employing chemical weaponry escalate, the UNSC may well swing in favour of international intervention, as would other currently reluctant nations. It is important to note, however, that should military intercession be seriously considered, a legal framework would need to be established. UNSC authorisation or countries acting on the premises of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine are likely to feature within such a framework.

Should military intervention be sanctioned by the UNSC, who, then, is likely to act? As previously mentioned, it is highly improbable that Western governments will pursue direct military action without UNSC approval. The U.S. and Europe are currently confronting other domestic constraints (the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the worst financial crisis in decades). Israel has not issued an official position on Syria, though certified statements emerged over the summer that have confirmed the possibility of launching an anticipatory attack against Syrian’s chemical weaponry. Turkey is widely argued to be the most likely to intervene, though it has not hitherto deviated from its assertion that protecting Syrian civilians is a UN-wide responsibility and it is therefore unlikely to act alone.

After assessing the balance of consequences of both non-intervention versus intervention and non- military versus military intervention, participants of the Chatham House Meeting determined three likely options for future action: increased provision of weaponry to the FSA and amplification of covert intervention; reprisal air strikes in response to widespread bloodshed in Aleppo; and an augmentation of sanctions on Syria. Regardless of the political implications of any of these three options, what is clear is that decisive action must be taken as the humanitarian crisis in Syria worsens and major cities descend into chaos. Near to 20,000 have already perished and more than 134,000 refugees are fled the country. The Meeting concluded with the argument that proactive action, though it will have immediate, and significant, consequences, may ultimately be preferable to simply waiting for further atrocities to happen.

Full report available here: 

Since the publication of the Chatham House Report in August 2012, there has been heightened violence in Syria, with recent escalation at the Turkish border and the Israeli- controlled Golan Heights refuelling calls for international intervention. The death toll from the civil war has risen to approximately 38,000 since March 2011, according to the pro-opposition Observatory. A promising development has taken place, however, in the formation of an opposition coalition, known as the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, let by Reformist Damascus cleric Mouaz Alkhatib. The establishment of a united front will undoubtedly strengthen both the resolve and on-the-ground power of the national putsch and will hopefully end the violent stalemate in which Syria has been locked for over twenty months.


 Eleanor Kate Flanagan

Eleanor Kate Flanagan is currently studying for her M.A. in International Relations at Durham University, U.K.