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Tuesday 6 June 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Khalil Hamra/AP/Press Association Images Syrian children play under the heat of the midday sun at Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Jordan. The camp now has 130,000 residents. (April 17, 2014)
Column Western powers should not intervene in Syria
High-tech western military force does not end conflicts – it changes them.

A RECENT SPATE of alleged chemical attacks in Syria, the arrival in Lebanon of the one millionth refugee from the civil war and the ever-increasing death toll in the conflict have all made the news lately. A negotiated settlement seems remote after the breakdown of talks between the government and opposition in Geneva earlier this year. Russia’s support for the Assad regime is as unwavering as ever, and is likely to increase given current tensions with the west over Ukraine.

In these circumstances, it is now more vital than ever for western governments to resist calls for intervention in the conflict. Intervention, whether by direct military force or by increased military aid to the opposition fighters, would be disastrous. It would greatly increase the death toll among the people of Syria, it would have catastrophic effects on Syria’s neighbours, and it would have serious long term repercussions for global relations.

Remember Iraq and Afghanistan

The one takeaway lesson from the recent history of western interventions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is that all the west brings to the table is bigger and more destructive weapons. Given that the ostensible reasons for intervention in Syria would be to save lives, it is difficult to see what this highly advanced arsenal can do apart from exponentially increasing the destructive nature of the conflict. Witness Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of ground-based intervention. High-tech western military force does not end conflicts, it changes them. Insurgents and terrorists adapt their tactics, becoming more brutal and harder to fight in the face of western technology and destructive power.

Trying to intervene in a conflict like Syria’s, which is waged mostly in densely-populated urban areas with civilians usually trapped in the conflict zones, is a recipe for mass casualties. Cruise missiles, heavy artillery and bombs do not discriminate between combatant and civilian, or between friend and foe. Fighting in Syria is concentrated mainly around the major cities like Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and also around numerous villages and towns. Distinguishing between government and opposition forces, to say nothing of distinguishing between Jihadist and moderate within the opposition itself, would be impossible.

For the countries that surround Syria, western intervention will create havoc. The arrival of powerful western military forces will trigger an even larger exodus of refugees. For countries like Jordan and Lebanon, who are stretched to the limit coping with the existing refugee crisis, this could cause a total collapse in their ability to provide for those most in need. Over-taxed and under-resourced host countries may not be able to provide basic nourishment for the incoming refugees, to say nothing of clothing, shelter and medical care.

Indirect intervention is also dangerous 

Indirect intervention through the provision of arms and other military aid to the rebels has been widely discussed. For Iraq, in particular, this kind of intervention is a dangerous move. The Iraqi government, ostensibly an ally of the west, is currently locked in a vicious struggle with ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham) which is also highly active in Syria, controlling large amounts of territory. Given the porous divisions between the different opposition groups and the increasing power of extremists like ISIS, it is a certainty that a proportion of any military aid which is given to the opposition will find its way into the hands of the extremists, who can then use them back in Iraq.

Globally, western intervention could destroy or undermine a number of important international relations and even start wider conflicts. The most immediate concern is the presence in the Syrian government forces of several thousand members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militants, who have been at war with Israel and, by extension, with the west for decades. With Hezbollah are dozens of Iranian military personnel sent to “advise” the Syrian government. If either of these groups is attacked, directly by western forces or by forces with western weapons, it could lead to reprisals. Given that the west is locked into negotiations with Iran about its nuclear programme, and Hezbollah has hundreds of rockets pointed at Israeli cities, these reprisals could be serious in the extreme.

Syria’s plight cannot be solved by violence

In wider terms, intervention in Syria would completely kill western relations with Russia, Assad’s staunchest backer. With the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, bringing relations any lower over Syria would be a disaster. China has also consistently opposed intervention in Syria on general political grounds, making it a second superpower whose relations with the west would be seriously compromised.

Syria’s plight is one of the great tragedies of modern times, but it cannot be solved by violence. This is not to say that there is nothing that the west and its citizens can do. There are currently 2.5 million Syrian refugees in camps from Turkey to Jordan. They urgently need hospitals, schools, water, food and amenities like electricity and heating. This is something the west can absolutely help with. We have the wealth, we have the technical expertise and we have the willingness. Rather than bringing violence, what the west should be talking about is how it can bring hope to the conflict’s victims.

Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News, and blogs on both with his brothers at and tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.

Read: ‘Enough, we said, enough’: UN humanitarian agencies call for end to Syria conflict

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