Intervening in Syria? Some Inconvenient Realities

By Stephen M. Saideman

The world has been far slower in reacting to Syria’s civil war than Libya’s. This is not surprising to experts, as countries have long discriminated in where they choose to invest their efforts. While we tend to hear talk of grander principles, such as the Responsibility to Protect, leaders make decisions based on their own political interests and on what is best for their country. When people lament the absence of political will, analysts can usually explain why international cooperation fails—the disparate interests of the relevant actors. Syria is no exception. In this post, I just want to highlight a few issues of domestic politics and then alliance dynamics that help explain the selectivity of intervention that should make it clearer why the international relations of Syria’s conflict have been less than decisive.

There are two completing strands of thinking about intervention and domestic political interests. The classic argument is that politicians facing domestic difficulties (scandals, economic problems, electoral challenges) may use foreign policy abroad to rally the public at home—the Wag the Dog strategy. In the scholarship on “rally the flag”, the consensus is that the rally effect is real but temporary. There is much less agreement on what causes politicians to use foreign policy as a diversion. The second strand refers to the consequences—that politicians who start wars tend not to stay in office even if they win and especially if they lose.

The relevance here is that elections in the US and France have been seen as restraints on intervention even as the Libyan campaign was not constrained by similar forces. Why not? Well, that leads to the second and third points about specific interest and alliance dynamics.

The reality is that democratic politicians will support intervention when their supporters want intervention, or at least, they are not opposed. This seems obvious and a truism, but it requires us to figure out when relevant constituents will support or oppose intervention. I spent much of my early career focused on ethnic ties—that people will support and perhaps even demand intervention when their kin are in harm’s way. This is just one way to conceive of constituent preferences. I find it more persuasive than the most likely alternative—that the constituents are oil companies and everything is about oil, although that does distinguish Libya from Syria.

Ethnic ties have already come into play in Syria with some Sunni-dominated countries enthusiastically supporting the rebels with whom they identify. Obviously, ethnic ties cannot explain Russia’s support. The fact that Russia does not have ethnic ties with either side does facilitate other interests coming into play, including strategic ones, as there are no counter-vailing interests. In the case of Libya, France had some compelling interests to get involved, including Sarkozy seeking to stop the flow of refugees that might endanger his re-election.

France’s efforts dragged in NATO, which gets us to the alliance piece. There is no other multilateral organization that is equipped to act here other than NATO. The UN, even if Russian and Chinese vetoes are ignored for a moment, does not have the capability to act very forcefully, and has to rely on a more robust proxy—NATO. But members of NATO are tired of nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan and constrained by a fiscal crisis. The best way to get NATO involved is to put the alliance at stake. The US consented to NATO involvement in Bosnia when the time came for President Clinton to keep his commitment to his NATO allies to deploy 25000 troops to either pullout the UN peacekeepers or to enforce an agreement. Members of NATO got serious about Kosovo when the credibility of the institution was put at risk. Libya was a poorly attended NATO operation rather than an ad hoc coalition of the willing because the US faced a choice of France and the UK going by themselves, of three musketeers (US, UK, and France) in an ad hoc effort, or via the alliance.

When it comes to Syria, the challenge is that NATO is not obligated nor has any one actor managed to manipulate the situation to corner the alliance. Turkey made a half-effort by talking about invoking Article V (an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all) when Syrian forces fired across the border. This had the potential to force NATO action precisely because key members of NATO do not want to have a public fight about whether NATO would defend Turkey. Better perhaps to act preemptively to settle the Syrian issue before Turkey actually tries to invoke Article V.

What does all of this mean? That we should not be surprised by the lame reactions of the international community to Syria’s civil war. Few of the advanced democracies have publics clamoring for yet another war, and NATO thus far has little at stake. This is unfortunate, as we know two other things about intervention and civil war: outsiders are needed to enforce agreements (see Barbara Walter’s work); and that civil wars with interveners on two or more sides last longer than when countries can line up only on one side.

  1. Thanks for this – you’ve given me some more to think about regarding how NATO operates. Curious about putting the “alliance at stake” – is that more typical of alliances than might be assumed?

    Also: curious to know more about Russia’s motivations.

  2. I think this misses the most important aspect in comparing Libya with Syria. In the case of Libya the Arab League sanctioned action to remove Khaddafi and Iran did not have a dog in the hunt. Without the Arab League action NATO would not have intervened. In the case of Syria I do not believe the Arab League has taken a similar position (though certain countries like Saudi Arabia are hostile to the Assad regime) and Iran is a key ally of Assad’s Syria, which in turn is a key linchpin in Iran’s link with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Anyone intervening in Syria should anticipate some type of countermeasures from Iran.

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