Debating Intervention in Syria

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Economist recently hosted a debate on intervention in Syria between myself and Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. I argued against the motion – that “this house believes that military intervention in Syria would do more harm than good” – and made the case that the time had come to consider taking military action in Syria. I lost the debate 61-39 percent. That 39 percent was significantly more than I would have expected, which suggested that the pro-intervention position, after being ruled out as wildly unrealistic months ago, was slowly gaining more support and legitimacy.

In my opening statement, I argued that it was wishful thinking to expect that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad might either implode suddenly or somehow be persuaded to stop the killing and negotiate in good faith. I wrote that military intervention was still premature but that the “planning for a number of military contingencies must accelerate.”

Over the course of the 10 days of online debate, the situation in Syria worsened and the Assad regime intensified its brutal siege of Homs. It seemed that Assad believed he could get away with it. In a sense, he was right: the international community was not serious about intervention. Assad had little incentive to give up power without a fight. Losing power would mean he, and his family, would live the rest of their lives fearing imprisonment or assassination.

In my rebuttal, I wrote that leaving the opposition to its own devices to fight an endless battle of attrition made a mockery of the world’s “responsibility to protect.” I countered Husain’s claims that an Islamist-dominated Syria would be worse for Israel and America. If anything, the opposite; as it so happens, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has long been a fierce opponent of Iranian hegemony.

By the time I wrote my closing argument, my position had solidified:  “I have—slowly and with my own reservations—come to believe that military intervention, for all its risks, for all the haunting memories of Iraq, is the best of a set of bad options.” I argued that a credible military threat was the only thing likely to alter Assad’s calculations. If it didn’t, then any intervention – establishing “safe zones” for example – would have to proceed in tandem with diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire agreement, which could then pave the way for the deployment of multinational peacekeeping forces.