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Explainer: The Pros And Cons Of Possible Military Intervention In Syria

A photo from early February of a row of houses that residents said were damaged during a military crackdown on protesters, in Rasten, near Homs.
As the international community debates whether it should intervene militarily to stop the killing in Syria, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the arguments of those on both sides of the issue.


With an estimated 8,000 people dead in Syria as a result of the government's suppression of a popular uprising, proponents of military intervention are asking how long the world can stand by.

U.S. Senator John McCain, one of the leading voices for military intervention, has been a leading voice for military action.

"What I am calling for is for a coalition -- not the United States by itself -- but a coalition, of like-minded countries, including some Middle Eastern countries, like Qatar, UAE, and others, joining together and bringing air power to bear," McCain argues, "because that is the only way you can stop this tanks and artillery. The massacre goes on and it is an unfair fight."

The Syrian National Council -- the umbrella organization for the Syrian opposition -- has called for countries to arm the resistance. No government has yet publicly agreed to do so, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called it an excellent idea.

At the heart of the "pro" argument is the idea of a moral imperative to defend human rights.

Chris Bellamy, a professor at the Greenwich Maritime Institute in England, says the idea that humanitarian concerns override sovereignty has grown since the 1990s, when the UN intervened in Bosnia.

"In more recent years, there have been a number of interventions by coalitions which are not UN-run and which may or may not be mandated by UN resolution," Bellamy says. "And clearly those advocating intervention in Syria will be basing the case for it on that platform."

But those calling for military inference in Syria may face an uphill battle.

In the United States, which spurred NATO to take action in Bosnia and Kosovo, the public is weary of conflicts after Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Europe, London has only called the Syrian opposition the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people, while France, which spearheaded the Libyan intervention, opposes arming the resistance.

Still, the pro argument may gain ground in the months ahead.

If the bloodshed in Syria keeps mounting, it could create the same kind of snowball effect that led NATO -- initially opposed to intervention -- to reverse course and enforce a UN mandate to protect civilians by bombing longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces.


Those arguing against military intervention in Syria worry it could have unpredictable consequences.

"People who urge military action have to understand that before you take that step, you'd better understand where this kind of action leads," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Alhurra on March 16.

As in Libya, there is fear that arming unknown fighters could lead to a full-blown civil war.

But there is also the larger worry that Western military intervention would threaten President Bashar al-Assad's allies -- Iran, Russia, and China -- and lead to a proxy conflict.

Shahshank Joshi, a political expert with the Royal United Services Institute, says Russia, which considers Syria its foothold in the Mideast, presents a particular danger.

"The concern is that at the end of the day, the Russians can provide very sophisticated equipment that would make any military intervention prohibitively costs -- and they already have been providing certain forms of antiaircraft missiles, and it wouldn't take very much for that to make an intervention almost unthinkable," Joshi says. "So in terms of the proxy war, the concern is whether you would really face a situation where the Syrian state would have a fallback option such that it could never really be completely shattered."

Moscow has called demands for regime change "risky recipes of geopolitical engineering which can only result in further conflict." China has said it is against "interference in internal affairs in the name of humanitarianism."

No government yet has called for military intervention in Syria. Instead, the focus remains on sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

On March 21, the UN Security Council agreed to back UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan for Syria. The plan calls for a cease-fire, political dialogue between government and opposition, and full access for aid agencies.