How Not to Help a Popular Uprising and Stop Mass Atrocities

More than 5,000 people have been killed and many thousands more detained and sometimes tortured since a nonviolent uprising began in Syria in March 2011. The regime’s sustained brutality in response to this popular challenge clearly deserves to be called a mass killing, and the killing machine so far shows no signs of abating.

Most people can’t witness atrocities on this scale without at least thinking about what might be done to stop them. That impulse has already led foreign governments to take a number of concrete actions to try to punish the perpetrators and protect Syrian civilians. The United States, the European UnionCanada, Turkey, and (most significant) the Arab League have all imposed tough sanctions on the Syrian regime, and those sanctions seem to be taking a real toll. In late December, the Arab League sent a team of observers to Syria to monitor the government’s treatment of nonviolent protesters. So far, that mission seems to be having little or no effect, but the mere fact of an Arab League mission to stop one of its member governments from killing its own people marks an important shift in the region’s international relations.

What hasn’t yet happened, of course, is direct foreign military intervention, at least not at any significant scale. Some elements of the Syrian opposition have called on foreign powers to establish a “no-fly zone” or “safe zones” in the country, and some commentators have called for a “Libyan-style liberation” with U.N. backing, but China and Russia so far have spoiled attempts to pass a Security Council resolution that would legitimate that kind action.

Of course, the absence of a U.N. resolution doesn’t mean that more forceful intervention can’t happen. In fact, according to a recent report by Josh Rogin on his blog for Foreign Policy, the Obama administration is already “quietly preparing options” to provide more direct support to the Syrian opposition. “After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly,” Rogin writes. Among the options reportedly under consideration are…

…establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya).

I’m a political scientist, not a foreign-policy pro, but my understanding of the politics of authoritarian rule tells me that this kind of prolonged mumbling about maybe intervening, a little bit, sometime soon might just be the worst thing a foreign government can do to try to help an opposition like Syria’s.

The basic problem is that a mumbled threat from a powerful adversary can be scary enough to provoke a response without actually doing anything concrete to help the opposition it’s meant to support. For one thing, fear of future intervention can prod the regime to kill faster in hopes of ending the uprising before any intervention can happen. In what economists call a free-rider problem, hopes for foreign intervention can also lead opposition groups to husband their own resources, thereby diminishing the chances that the revolution will succeed without substantial foreign support. Under certain conditions, the hanging threat of intervention can even give rebel leaders “an incentive to engage in the kinds of provocative actions that make atrocities against their followers more likely in the first place.” To a foreign government hoping to protect civilian lives and catalyze the fall of a dictatorial regime, none of these is a good outcome.

My point here is not to make the case against international support for Syrian opposition groups, although I do have serious doubts about the immediate and long-term effects of foreign military intervention [as discussed in this subsequent post]. And lest there be any doubt: attempts to establish a “no-fly zone,” “safe zones,” or “humanitarian corridors” in Syria would necessarily involve large-scale and risky military operations.

Instead, my point is that vague threats of future action are probably doing more harm than good, so they should stop. Cheap talk may be just that for the talkers, but it can actually be pretty costly to some of the bystanders. For foreign governments that want to see the atrocities against Syrian protesters end, it would be better to hurry up and make a credible threat of decisive action, or to signal clearly that the international cavalry isn’t going to arrive any time soon.

Leave a comment


  1. Richard Bridger

     /  January 4, 2012

    Hi Jay,

    Agree it *could* have this impact, but think it might not and, even if it does, it’s not necessarily a bad thing from the point of view of who is intervening (so, particular reference to US).

    Agree it’s likely to encourage regime to accelerate killing (though there’s also the potential that it splits the elite – if one section believe they can resolve situation and avoid intervention, they may break from the current rulers. In Syria I think this is unlikely, but in theory it could occur). By the time a state is killing it’s own citizens, though, you’re already in a bad set of choices. Whether the Assad regime kills quick or slow, if it wins it’s going to kill, imprison and torture a lot. The key then, I think, is to do whatever is possible to ensure regime does not win.

    This is where chat about intervention might help, simply because it may encourage the opposition / protesters to hold out. It may even push them to accelerate their own plans if they want to avoid or encourage intervention.

    Equally, intervention requires a level of domestic consent from the intervening countries and international consent from surrounding ones (and a few others in UN). Building this takes time and, unfortunately, it means that the most efficient resolution through early intervention isn’t really feasible. The consensus may only come once all other options have been exhausted. Putting it on the table is necessary to building it though. It’s the equivalent of moving the Overton window.

    Lastly, from the point of view of statecraft, it is a somewhat crass but effective way of getting clarity about a situation. If it forces the issue on the ground, maybe the situation will be resolved without intervention. If it won’t, perhaps it will reveal the strengths and preferences of the opposing forces. Floating a trial balloon will also crystallise the level of support and see whether intervention as feasible as well as desirable. The equivalent to an army sending units to probe the strength of an opposing force.

    Your points reminds me a bit of the ‘should have started WWII earlier’ argument ( All other things equal, maybe not talking about intervention and either doing it or making clear you won’t is better. But all other things aren’t equal. Mumbling on the sides is, for worse but also for better, part of the process.

    See, this is why I need Twitter to restrict my comments!


    • I think this is a reasonable counter-argument, and I agree that the menu is full of unpalatable choices. Still, I get the feeling that the mumbling in the U.S. isn’t quite as strategic as you suggest. If that’s correct, then the leak on which Rogin’s report is based was just awful.

  2. Megan

     /  January 23, 2012

    You made a statement, somewhat in passing, about issues that exist with international support for the Syrian opposition. Would you be willing to expand on that because I find this issue to be very interesting, and what do you think that the international community should be doing instead of discussions about military intervention?

    • That’s a tough question. I’ll start by saying that I’m not opposed to any discussion of military intervention; I just think those discussions should not drag on and on and on, and outside actors should not make vague or idle threats. As for other ways to respond, I think the sanctions that have been imposed are appropriate and are having a significant effect. In light of the likely costs and unintended complications of direct military intervention, I think it’s both pragmatic and morally defensible for other governments to focus on maintaining those sanctions and wait for the internal conflict to break.


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