Dutch intervention in Syria: the pros and cons

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

“Where is the UN?” It’s a plea you see from time to time on a piece of card held up for the camera in footage of the carnage in Syria. During the Libyan revolution, the international community intervened on the basis of the UN responsibility to protect. Should the Netherlands push for military action in Syria?

We run through five arguments in favour of intervention – and five against, because the matter isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

Five good reasons to intervene in Syria:

1. Civilians in Syria are appealing for intervention. As journalist Marie Colvin said before she too was killed by Syrian shelling, “No one here understands how the international community can let this happen.” Civilians are dying every day. If the responsibility to protect doesn’t apply in Syria, where does it apply? The official Syrian opposition now also appears to be in favour of military action.

2. The Dutch public wants intervention. There is growing public outrage in the Netherlands at the lack of action from the international community. Intervention is becoming unavoidable, according to security expert Rob de Wijk. “Moral indignation is growing in the Western world,” he says. “This sets up a dynamic whereby something has to be done.”

3. A UN mandate isn’t a prerequisite. “Turkey has already hinted at the idea of setting up humanitarian corridors,” says defence specialist Ko Colijn. “Al-Assad has also put countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the spot. I can’t see an agreement on a UN mandate happening so quickly, but I think there will be a sort of veiled intervention, with arms supplies by the US, for example, and perhaps foreign troops, such as elite commandos from Arab countries, getting involved in the fighting.”

4. Dialogue is impossible. Some hope that mediators will continue talking to al-Assad. But he doesn’t want to talk, and neither does the opposition any more. “The Syrian regime has made its intentions clear,” says political analyst Shadi Hamid in The Economist. The only thing that will change al-Assad’s mind is a serious military threat.

5. The Netherlands’ international credibility is on the line. Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said at the start of the uprising that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost his legitimacy. Later he spoke to members of the Syrian opposition, recalled the ambassador from Damascus and said “the international community had a duty to act”. Yet he’s only aiming at stiffer sanctions.

The question is: does anyone really want to intervene? Although the Netherlands and other Western countries point the finger of blame at Russia and China, for over a year they’ve done nothing themselves. And perhaps rightly so.

Five good reasons not to intervene in Syria:

1. Syria’s position is too strategic. Does the Netherlands want Saudi Arabia, Iran and various other players to fight a proxy war in Syria with Western support? A major military conflict in Syria would upset the precarious balance in the region, because all sorts of countries would immediately try to increase their sphere of influence.

2. ‘The Syrian people’ doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to know exactly how much support there is for al-Assad, but it’s certain that many Syrians oppose the revolt. “Even though the regime is a gang of villains, you can still wonder about the legitimacy of intervening in a country when a large part of the population is against it,” says journalist Maarten Zeegers, who was in Syria at the start of the uprising.

3. The opposition is divided and poorly organised. There is a real risk of a Lebanese-style civil war, says Ko Colijn. And supporting the rebels militarily after the fall of President al-Assad could lead to chaos, with different armed militias fighting for power. This is also an argument put forward by al-Assad and his cronies, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

4. Syria is not Libya. Al-Assad still has friends in the region, unlike Libya’s former dictator Gaddafi. What’s more the military situation is entirely different. There is no clear frontline, the battle is in residential areas. “In the present situation it’s hard to carry out military operations without running the risk of committing war crimes,” says law of war professor Terry Gill.

5. The indignation about Syria is selective. Yes, many have been killed. Yes, the regime is cruel. But Syria isn’t the only country in the world where the people are suffering. Does that mean we should look on passively? Yes, says security specialist Rob de Wijk. “That’s what we’ve done with virtually every other conflict in the world. We never intervened in Burma, never in Zimbabwe, never really in Congo. So it wouldn’t be unusual if we did the same now.”

With contributions by Johan van der Tol

As the bombardment in the Syrian city of Homs continues, British Channel 4 News broadcast a special report from a photographer who captures with shocking clarity the intense assault on the city.