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Intervention or No Intervention in Syria? Getting the Counterfactual Right

March 6, 2012

As the humanitarian crises in Syria exacerbates and the death toll (arguably) increases, myriad possible strategies are proposed to stop the carnage in Syria. This strategies vary a lot and go from a heightened diplomatic pressure to a fully fledged military intervention, with in the middle call to arm the fragmented Syrian opposition. To prove the solidity of each of these arguments their proposers should answer a basic question: why implementing the strategy (for example threatening the refer Assad to the International Criminal Court) would be better than doing nothing. In other words the fallacy of each argument can be assessed only against the backdrop of the appropriate counterfactual that is the answer to the question what would be happen without the proposed strategy X or Y?

Some commentators have argued that what is happening right now is that the increased intensity and scale of military confrontation in Syria has forced the Syrian opposition (or rather the myriad forces which comprise it) to ask for military support. If this call of military help has fallen on the deaf ears of the moderate states, it has found more willing listeners among more radical actors. The risk associated with this phenomenon is the possibility of a pro-democracy and multi-sectarian Syrian opposition to fragment along sectarian divides and to mute into an opposition of extremist stamp.

Some evidence that this is happening emerges from North Lebanon where most of the displaced Syrians are fleeing to. As the newspaper Al-Akhbar reports amongst the most vocal supporter of the Syrian opposition is the Islamist movement Hizbut-Tahrir. This movement however looks at the conflict in Syria through sectarian lenses and see it as a possibility for the Sunni majority to settle scores with the Alawite and Shia communities perceived to support the Assad’s regime. Although the motivation of the Syrian protesters were very different (fight against oppression, regardless the faith or community one belongs to), they are increasingly forced to forge alliance with Islamist forces for lack of better friends in Lebanon. The rise of the most radical Islamic forces within the Syrian opposition is according to Jonhatan Schanzer, the inevitable result if Saudi Arabia remains the only interlocutor willing to listen to Syrian opposition’s call for military support. Such argument is based upon the precedent set in Afghanistan, where the Saudis decided to counteract the Russian invasion and they trained a generation of jihadist fighters whose interpretation of Islam adhere to the radical Wahhabism. If this happen the balance is likely to be balanced away from the ideal of democracy and liberalism which initially spurred the uprisings. If this is the case any commentators who advances a possible solution to the Syrian standoff is to explain why it would be better that preserving the status quo and therefore observing the armament of the Syrian opposition forces and their radicalization in the directions of extremist Islam.

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