A Reasonable Hope? Just Intervention in Syria Requires More than Good Intentions


I recently engaged in an extended “Twitter debate” about intervention in Syria with Dr. Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. We broke no new ground in our 140-character bursts, but talked past each other with more efficiency than the growing corpus of essays for and against intervention. Nichols is adamantly pro-intervention. He peppered me with questions meant to pin down my position with reference to precedents such as Kosovo and Somalia, the intersection of values and interests, and the moral imperative of alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people. I volleyed back with questions about what exactly he proposed that we do and what the likely outcomes were. We were each exasperated with the other’s perspective and in the end, our positions never budged.

Nichols was focused on the moral imperative to do something, anything to lessen the suffering and to reassert America’s role of strategic leadership. While I am no less caring for the Syrian people and no less interested in America’s strategic position in the region and the world, my focus was on the likely outcome of any action. Nichols’ focus was in the realm of intentions, with the conviction that there will be positive consequences if only we can agree to act. Nichols and I are unlikely to come to agreement, but our impasse is instructive insofar as it offers a sampling of the themes that characterize the ongoing Syria debate. Those demanding action do so with the firm belief that they are the sole occupants of the moral high ground. Yet, the majority of their opponents in the U.S. debate are standing next to them on that patch of moral ground, desiring the same outcomes for the Syrian people and the stability of the region. The critics diverge, however, in a skepticism that “doing something” will make the situation better. The debate should focus on this divergence, but interventionists tend to discount the legitimacy of their critics’ demands. As we will see, it takes more than just good intentions to claim moral legitimacy. Just war requires a reasonable hope of success. The intense focus on morality and norms with regard to Syria has crowded out a fuller discussion of what actually can be done. It is time to give actuality a fuller hearing.

With talks at an impasse, the United Nations relief effort to the brutally besieged town of Homs was deliberately targeted, and ultimately halted when the regime spirited away military-age male evacuees. With the specter of an endless civil war fought by an increasingly radical cast of characters, a clamor is building for something to be done. That clamor has brought President Obama to ask for a review of policy options on Syria, as announced by Secretary of State Kerry on February 14. In any such review, some sort of military intervention is sure to be considered.

Sandy Berger, R. Nicholas Burns, Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, Max Boot, and even Stephen Hawking have called for action in the past week as the debate seems to be reaching a new inflection point. They cite an array of reasons for intervention while being far more vague on what form the intervention should take, and to what end it should be aimed. When a specific objective is referenced, such as Berger’s mention of denying the regime use of its helicopters and their “barrel bombs,” it is carefully buried near the end of the piece and wrapped in obfuscation about the “many ways to achieve this goal.” The obligatory disclaimer follows that these are “actions limited in scope and that do not involve U.S. troops on the ground.” Even Max Boot, who never met a country in which he wouldn’t like to have an iced latte at a U.S.-led headquarters, coyly claimed in his latest missal on Syria that “no one is suggesting sending ground troops.” Not yet, Max. Not yet.

There are few credible observers, not even the most hardheaded realists, who would not like to see an end to the bloodshed and the demise of a murderous regime, long complicit with some of the region’s most disruptive actors. Thus, proponents of intervention do their own cause a disservice by failing to recognize that their opponents need no more moral badgering, but must be convinced on other fronts. Accusations of weakness and indifference to or dislike of the Syrian people are insulting and counterproductive to our collective interests. Any policy decision will be much stronger if it is based on thoughtful debate that concedes a common moral goal and focuses in more detail on what paths have a reasonable hope of taking us there.

Starting from this common ground, why do we differ? I have expressed my opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria in these and other pages. My position is not built on isolationism, xenophobia, or a lack of care for, much less dislike of the Syrian people. While such accusations are easily tossed at opponents of intervention, they fall far short of reality. I, for one, have spent a decent amount of time living and working in the Middle East. I have personally seen the refugees flowing over the border into Jordan and spoken to the children who left places like Deraa. It is heart-rending to think that those potentially facing months, years, or even a lifetime in a refugee camp are the lucky ones.

Like the interventionists, I’d love nothing more than to bring an end to this tragedy. I don’t believe, however, that a U.S.-led military intervention—a limited one as the interventionists consistently espouse—has a reasonable hope of doing anything but assuaging the guilt of inaction, at significant strategic cost and with no appreciable benefit for the Syrian people. The interventionists label such a concern with possible outcomes as hand-wringing, navel-gazing, or worse. Dr. Nichols opines, “I am particularly tired of the retired generals out there hitting the airwaves, each of them gravely intoning the List of Horrible Consequences while offering almost nothing in the way of actual solutions.” That a professor of national security affairs believes that there are “solutions” to be had in such a situation is troubling enough. While Nichols moans that the retired generals fail to provide solutions in one breath, he observes in another that, “Unlike the ‘tell me how it ends’ absolutists, I realize that strategic effects can’t be predicted perfectly.”

In order for Nichols to get his “solutions” from the generals, strategic effects would have to be predictable. Nichols is right that strategic effects cannot be predicted perfectly, which is why there are no solutions, only courses of action that have varying prospects for success. And with each course of action, there are prospects for failure as well. Prudent advocacy would acknowledge this, proposing options that maximize the upside, mitigate the downside, and admit that there is almost always a “then what” question to be answered. We can’t predict perfectly how this ends, but if we haven’t agreed to play more than one hand, the odds of failure are far greater.

In part, the reluctance to engage in such discussion is marketing: focusing on the positive outcomes, downplaying the negatives, playing to emotions, and attempting to undermine contrarian views. More fundamentally, the interventionists’ refusal to engage more deeply in a discussion of actions and possible outcomes is reflective of a singular focus on the emotional imperative to “do something.” That may suffice for the op-ed page, but we are obligated to consider more than our guilt and our good intentions before entering a war.

The “just war” concept is a powerful and long-standing tool to “to bring morality and actuality on the same plane.” Examining intervention through this lens will yield conclusions that arise “not from strong preconceived notions about justice in war (or intervention) but from sensitivity to the reality of the particular war (or intervention).” Making the decision to wage “just war” requires fulfillment of jus ad Bellum—right in war—criteria. Jus ad bellum consists of eight concepts:

  1. Right authority
  2. Just cause
  3. Right intention
  4. Last resort
  5. Proportionality
  6. Reasonable hope (alternately termed the prospects for success)
  7. Relative justice’
  8. Open declaration

In considering this list, I’m most skeptical about number 6: the prospects for success. On a humanitarian level, it is hard to imagine that an intervention could make the situation much worse for the people of Syria, though it will take a great amount of effort to make their lot much better. From a strategic perspective, however, an intervention that fails to significantly alter the balance in Syria is a significant failure, further eroding our ability to positively affect future events. This is, unfortunately, a familiar pattern. No matter what the specific calculus, if we fail to fully contemplate the potential shortcomings of our action, and the likely need for more than one limited move, then failure is all but preordained.

Most calls for intervention, however, not only fall short of the obligation for moral/ethical rigor under a framework like jus ad bellum, but also fail more basic prudential tests. In short, they do not consider anything but success from the most minimal investment. The majority start with the disclaimer that no one is advocating boots on the ground and that the proposed action is limited, relatively risk free, and requires no discussion of a step 2. The op-ed solutions generally include no-fly zones. Drones are likewise popular, if militarily questionable choices.

No-fly zones seem a compelling solution. Yet, the amount of aircraft, foreign basing, time, and iron required to destroy the Syrian integrated air defense system and crater the Syrian air bases will quickly run past what the public considers to be “limited” intervention. Helicopters, which can be dispersed at the first sign of a strike, may continue to sortie and drop their crude, but terrifying barrel bombs for some time after the start of the air campaign. Even when aircraft no longer dare to take to the skies, the regime has many other tools at its disposal. A no-fly zone will make a statistical alteration to the killing, but will not end it.

Will this intervention look like a humanitarian success with artillery, rockets, and militias continuing their slaughter? Will it demonstrate America’s strategic resolve and influence in a meaningful way to potential adversaries? The prospects for success of such a limited intervention do not live up to the just cause we ascribe to it. So then what? While proponents of action scoff at the “then what” question as a far-fetched game in prediction of complex strategic events, they must address the very real likelihood that a no-fly zone will not cause the regime’s ground forces to crumble. The Syrian regime has made it clear that this is a fight to the death. Surrender and escape are not options, so there is no reasonable hope that a no-fly zone will significantly alter its calculus.

To truly put a dent in the killing, the air campaign would have to extend to conducting strikes against ground forces. This is another escalation, requiring more assets, more ordnance, and causing more death and destruction on the ground. This destruction, however, may alter the balance and enable the opposition to make significant gains. The troublesome “then what” question must be asked again, however. What do we do if and when the regime becomes largely irrelevant, but the fighting between militias and rebel groups continues in close and ruthless combat in the rubble of Syria’s cities? Airstrikes cannot stop this sort of bloody, up close war. Does this meet our humanitarian or strategic just cause? If not, do we withdraw in failure or seek another escalation?

The talk would then turn to the creation of humanitarian safe zones. This is where the fact that no one was advocating boots on the ground could come to haunt us. It is important to remember that a previous, poorly conceived attempt to create safe areas led to the genocidal slaughter at Srebrenica, where over the course of a few days in July 1995, Serbian forces killed at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslims despite the presence of some 400 Dutch peacekeepers of the UN Protection Force.

If extensive airstrikes were to alter the balance in the war and if some humanitarian zones could be established—most likely requiring limited boots on the ground of some international force—what role would America play during the near-certain post-Assad chaos? Will we let a civil war play out so long as the regime is no longer doing the killing on an industrial scale?

If extensive airstrikes enable a fragile peace to hold briefly in a post-Assad Syria, would America or its allies be willing to rush peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance forces to hold the gains?

These infernal questions are seen by too many proponents of intervention as a ploy to forestall action by sowing indecision. Nichols certainly thinks so. “There are no ‘end states’ or ‘exit strategies.’ More to the point: there never are, and we need to stop using those terms.”

Nichols sets up a straw man here, but too many interventionists similarly discount the value of considering the wide range of scenarios that could result from intervention. This is at best counterproductive to designing actions that have a reasonable hope of producing a meaningful and enduring positive outcome. At worst, they are being purposefully dishonest in downplaying the likely requirement for future escalations because they know that once committed in a small way, it will be difficult to withdraw in the face of failure. We have done this time and again in past years, taking one small sip at a time, swearing we wouldn’t take another, until we woke up and wondered how we’d gotten ourselves into such a predicament again. No one is asking for a perfect prediction of the future, a guarantee of “victory,” or an iron clad contract of an exit strategy. Let’s just be honest with ourselves.

Meaningful intervention in Syria will require—at a minimum—a robust and extended air campaign that goes beyond establishment of a no-fly zone to striking ground forces. Were such a campaign to be successful, the likely outcome would be chaos on the ground at best; a civil war of all against all at worst. We must consider what role we would take up in the case of either eventuality. I continue to believe that intervention at the very limited level that is being mooted (a level which the American public is skeptical about supporting) provides no reasonable hope of a meaningfully positive outcome on the humanitarian side. Even a more robust intervention—one that the American public has no interest in—is highly unlikely to produce any semblance of stability in the near term. So, what will it be, America? Another open-ended military commitment? A half-hearted attempt to right the world’s wrongs, followed by an ignominious withdrawal? Or is it better to continue the frustrating, glacial crawl toward some sort of diplomatic solution or some clearer break in the conflict?

Even the champion of intervention in Syria, Anne Marie Slaughter, wrote, “Intervention makes sense only if it actually has a higher chance of making things better than making them worse.” It is time that we talked in detail about the prospects for success of intervention in Syria, rather than continuing to wave a rosy wand.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.


Photo credit: Freedom House