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NATO Could Intervene in Syria – And It Should

The conflict in Syria has created the largest refugee crisis of our time.  It is estimated that the conflict in Syria has created 4.8 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced persons. 

A conflict where soft power, to include economic and political instruments like sanctions and cease fires, have mostly failed.  It is time to shift to hard power and utilize an alliance, backed by international law, to put an end to the violence and create an environment where the Syrian people can hold a democratic election of their government. 

The time for half-measures and talk has unfortunately ended. 

NATO should intervene in Syria, to put an end to the refugee crisis, which is affecting many NATO members.  Relying on the UN’s responsibility to protect will not be successful in this case; Russia can veto for their own desire to back the Syrian government. 

NATO, on the other hand, has suitable reasons to become involved in the Syrian conflict and doesn’t need a UN security council resolution to deploy.

Background on the Syrian Civil War

In late 2010, civil protests and demonstrations started in Tunisia and spread across five countries in the North Africa and the Middle-east.  This phenomenon became known as the Arab Spring. 

In Syria, protesting occurred in March of 2011 and protesters marched in the capital of Damascus.  The protests were in response to an arrest of a boy and others for graffiti.  The protesting turned violent when protesters started burning down buildings including the Ba’ath headquarters. 

The president, Bashar al-Assad blamed the civil unrest on foreign conspirators pushing Israeli propaganda, which was entirely unfounded.  Near the end of April protests had swept through twenty-two different cities and armed rebellion started to occur.  Later, many officers of the Syrian army rebelled and created the Free Syrian Army. 

In 2012, a ceasefire was brokered by the UN, but it did not hold for even a month. Syria became a breeding ground for faction groups and terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Nusra, competing for their own piece of the country.  Al-Assad vowed to destroy the rebels and sought assistance from Russia and Iran.  Surprisingly, Syria held Presidential elections in the government controlled areas.  Al-Assad was elected, but the international community discredited the election as 60% of the country were in ISIS or rebel held territory and unable to vote. 

The UN failed to authorize use of force in Syria and the Syrian conflict continued.

Instruments for success in Syria

The international community has tried many foreign policy instruments to quell the conflict in Syria; such as sanctions, monetary aid, limited air strikes, and peace talks. Nothing has yet to save the Syrian people from the destruction in their country and terrorist groups have been thriving off the chaos.  

Perhaps the first step to success in Syria from the international community is to form an alliance among other states.  Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been strong partners in dealing with Syria and support the creation of safe zones to give haven to civilians among all the fighting.  Unfortunately, Al-Assad has not agreed to any creation of safe zones. 

The US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia should work with other gulf partners such as Kuwait, Jordan, and UAE to establish safe zones in Syria.  An alliance of this size, if they are decisive and act in unity, could establish these zones and help protect some of the 6 million internally displaced persons as well as return some refugees.  Using alliances with limited military action and foreign aid is the first step to stabilizing Syria.

NATO does not need the UN, but it does need partners outside the alliance

The point of disagreement between such an alliance has historically been the establishment of safe zones and imposing a no-fly zone.  Recently, the message has been a little mixed from the current administration on the core strategy towards Syria. 

The US should either concede or work with the alliance to implement safe zones regardless of airspace restrictions. 

There could be negotiation to ease either party’s concerns, such as a clause in a safe zone agreement that, if violated by Syrian government forces, fly-zones would be reestablished.  It could encourage good behavior from Assad with this strategy.

Covertly, the NATO alliance should be preparing for a full-scale intervention in Syria if safe zones and diplomacy are unable to result in a new President of Syria.  The Syrian people have spoken and it’s time for Assad to go.  The UN, with China and Russia veto will most likely never authorize force under the Responsibility to Protect clause.  Although, this hasn’t stopped NATO in the past, with successful campaigns in places such as Kosovo.

Kremlin 2

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Via Kremlin ru.

NATO must act in its own security interests and in the interest of humanitarian protection of innocent people. 

The NATO member states are unable to handle the number of refugees flowing into Europe.  They don’t go to China or Russia, but rather refugees flow to Western Europe and North America. In a preemptive manner, NATO should be ready to bring stability to Syria and foster an environment for free elections. 

The most significant deterrent to a NATO intervention is, of course, Russia. Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine has raised concerns as to the motivations of Putin in the world.  Russia seems to challenge NATO member borders with involvement in Ukraine and is currently facing hard sanctions for its actions.  This has spread the professional Russian military rather thin. 

Leaving the other 2/3rds of mostly conscripted Russian military left to deploy.  Russia has challenged the west in Europe and in Syria.  NATO should be prepared to challenge Russia, as sanctions are not effective. 

The main reason those in the international community are critical of western troops on the ground in Syria, is because of the risk of direct clash between them and Russia. 

This is a theoretical risk, and a narrow risk, because it must assume Russia would become involved in a full-scale conventional war with western troops, but Putin is not ready to risk that over Syria.

The US should lead the effort

The US should ally with gulf members and seek to establish safe zones.  If safe zones are not approved by Al-Assad or violated in any way after implementation, NATO should be prepared to move into Syria and challenge Russia, as sanctions and other instruments of soft power have proven to be ineffective towards Russia and Syria. 

What if NATO called Russia’s bluff? 

Putin might concede Syria in hopes of saving that fight for something more important, such as Ukraine.  Russia would quickly consolidate its best forces away from the Syrian theatre and redeploy them out of fears NATO would also act in Ukraine.  Russia has little to lose from withdrawing out of Syria, but a lot to lose out of Ukraine. 

NATO could even use the threat of action in Ukraine, to encourage Russia to concede in Syria, leaving NATO to move swiftly against Al-Assad and secure Syria’s future for its people to choose. 

The worst-case scenario would be a full-scale conventional war with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, but the US and NATO have the capability to defeat Russia.  It would be unfortunate, but a morally justified conflict.

The US and NATO would be on the right side of history for not only stopping the catastrophic Syrian conflict, but also protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine.


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