By Max Watkins
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the civil war in Syria, pitting the forces of the autocratic President Assad against the democratic yearning rebels. 10,000 civilians have already died as riots have now turned into open conflict and military sieges of city centers. While Assad blames terrorists and other boogey-men for the unrest and attempts to downplay the violence initiated on his behalf, there is no doubt that he is the one behind the military-led attacks on his people. And with social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, providing the outside world with a clear window into the death and destruction, the international community is in uproar over Assad and his military’s actions. But given the international outcry and condemnation, why has no one intervened in Syria to protect its civilians and overthrow Assad?
The situation in Syria is eerily similar to the one in Libya last summer, where longtime dictator Colonel Qaddafi and rebel forces were locked in a civil war, with civilians in the crossfire. But in the Libyan situation, the United Nations Security Council condemned and effectively authorized intervening in Libya through Resolutions 1970 and 1973. Led by France and the United Kingdom, with the heavy support of the United States, the rebels and civilians were aided and protected, and Qaddafi was overthrown. But with Syria, there has been no UN Security Council Resolution and no intervention.
There are several reasons why no one has come to the Syrian people’s aid.
First, having the UN Security Council issue a Resolution condemning Syria would lend legitimacy to any actions taken by an outside government to intervene in the country and violate its sovereignty. This did not happen, so it is unlikely any state will intervene. No Resolution was passed because two of the five permanent members, Russia and China, vetoed the motion. They were unusually agreeable with the Libyan resolution, but in that situation, none of their interests were being threatened. However in the Syrian case, Russia has long-standing ties dating back to the Soviet Union and the Cold War era. Russia will not tolerate any western nations interfering in its perceived sphere of influence, so it vetoed the Security Council Resolution. Also, Putin won, with doubtful legality, the recent presidential election in Russia. He is eager to throw his weight around once again and deny the desires of western countries. China and Russia generally agree on Security Council Resolutions so we can assume that China followed Russia’s lead.
Second, part of the reason why France, the UK, and the US were so eager to intervene in Libya was because their three domestic leaders, Sarkozy, Cameron, and Obama, were all eager to establish their foreign policy credentials and prowess. When there is trouble at home, a very easy way to boost your popularity and reputation is to go to war (and presumably win). This happened in Libya, but Europe’s troubles have only gotten worse since last summer, as the very existence of the Euro and European Union are in question. So while these European countries are quick to condemn Assad, the political will and capital necessary for military intervention no longer exists as domestic issues have stolen the leader’s attention. And with President Obama dealing with a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and an upcoming election, his focus is not on intervening in another Middle Eastern country.
Third, Libya was a major oil producer, with its oil fueling much of Europe. Syria, however, is not a major oil producer. In fact, it is projected that Syria will soon become a net importer of oil this decade. During the Libyan Civil War, oil production and shipments ceased, raising the price of oil worldwide. But with the overthrow of Qaddafi, oil production rebounded. And lowering the price of oil, and thus gas, is something politicians and leaders are increasingly pressured to do in a time of rising prices at the pump. While never overtly stated as a reason for intervention in Libya, its oil must have been a strong incentive to intervene. But given that Syria has no real oil production, western countries do not feel compelled to intervene to ensure a steady flow of oil.
We can see that the Libyan intervention was only possible due to a unique set of circumstances; it was the exception. In Syria’s case, the lack of legitimacy of an intervention and no compelling domestic reasons in western countries to intervene leaves Syria on its own; this is generally how interventions fail to happen. For the foreseeable future, only time will tell if the rebels can defeat the brutal and increasingly desperate attacks by the forces of President Assad without outside support.
Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Yale Globalist Beat Blogger on International Conflicts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.