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 Union, Canada, 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.