You are here

ARGUMENTS FOR Military Intervention in Syria

Commentary, 8 February 2012
Middle East and North Africa
With over 6000 dead, there is little option but to intervene in Syria and dismantle the regime. It is important that the international community joins the Arab states in their determination to get involved and ensure a stable post-Assad Syria.

With over 6000 dead, there is little option but to intervene in Syria and dismantle the regime. It is important that the international community joins the Arab states in their determination to get involved and ensure a stable post-Assad Syria.

By Michael Stephens, Researcher, RUSI Qatar

> Click here for ARGUMENTS AGAINST Military Intervention in Syria

Syria Protest

The Assad regime has callously played with the international community by exploiting the divisions between Western states and Russia and China to continue with its crackdown on its civilian population. In eleven months of unrest over 6,000 people have now been killed, this despite numerous rounds of sanctions and condemnations from Arab and Western states which have been insufficient to stop the death toll rising.

Indeed as if to illustrate the futility of the international community following the veto of a UN Security Council Resolution by Russia and China on Saturday 4 February, Syrian forces resumed their shelling of the city of Homs just 24 hours later. The veto was a green light for the Assad regime to continue using violence against civilians in a manner which is indiscriminate, and therefore illegal. 

Why the Syrians Need our Help

For some time now the Assad regime has sought to fight its way out of the crisis rather than implement reforms. As the months of 2011 wore on, many Syrians realised that the only option they had left was to resort to the use of force to fight back against the regime, in order to protect their towns and cities from Regime reprisals.

Writing in the Financial Times, former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and RUSI Associate Fellow Shashank Joshi recently argued that Syria is now 'already' in a state of civil war,[1] and they are correct to do so. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), consisting of over 10,000 Syrian Army defectors has declared that they seek the removal of the Assad regime from power. The country is now populated by two opposing armies, yet 'the Free Syrian Army does not have the manpower, materiel, or necessary organisation and support capabilities to defeat the much larger Syrian Army and Republican Guard.'[2] Further to this Syria has strong local and regional identities, and the opposition's factionalisation reflects this on-the-ground reality.[3] In short they will need the international community's help if they are to successfully topple Assad. It is a mammoth task.

This is where the challenge lies: if the West agrees Assad should be removed, as has been stated now on numerous occasions. Then it follows that, given Assad's continued intransigence and use of force to extinguish the rebellion militarily, that Western powers not assisting the FSA would be  working against their stated goal of removing Assad from power. The course has been set, not by the West but by Assad and his regime, who have refused the multitude of opportunities to settle Syria's internal disputes peaceably.

Given the disparity between the two sides, it is unreasonable to conclude that the West or the Arab world encourages a heavy mechanised war between two opposing armies. Indeed, supplying the FSA requires a more subtle approach, encouraging the use of guerrilla tactics, requiring mobility, communication support, and light weaponry no heavier than an RPG and anti-tank weaponry.

This serves two purposes; firstly it vastly cuts down on training time by removing the need for preparing mechanised vehicles. Secondly, by limiting the scope of the war to a guerrilla style insurgency, there is far less risk of advanced weapons from the West ending up in the hands of armed forces with whom we are not fully conversant or familiar.

Keeping the Arab World Onside

Most importantly for the international community is the need to understand that for the Arab states, the diplomatic option is fast running its course. Following the failure of the Arab League Monitoring mission, largely due to the refusal of the Assad regime to cooperate with the demands of its observers, the Arab League and in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia are committed to seeing the end of the Assad regime.

For Saudi Arabia this indicates a huge shift in its policy position. King Abdullah, vehemently opposed to regime change in Bahrain, and reticent to overtly call for change in Syria, has repeatedly offered Assad the chance of redemption. On 8 August 2011 Abdullah stated 'Syria should think wisely before it's too late and issue and enact reforms. Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.'[4] Saudi Arabia, the states of the Gulf Co-operation Council and indeed Jordan, had all cautiously hoped that this warning would be heeded. That Assad did not heed the warning has led the Arab states into a position where they can no longer countenance his regime remaining in power.

It is a message that the West has acknowledged but the Russians and Chinese have not, at least not openly. At the Security Council deliberations this month, Qatar's Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani issued Russia a stark warning 'I warn you that exercising any veto on the crisis in Syria...will lose all the Arab countries'. It is to date, the first time that Qatar, the perennial victor in the Arab Spring, has ever issued such a threat in the public sphere, and one that should not be taken lightly.

That China and Russia have stymied the diplomatic option will now put into place a series of events that they will have little control over. Those familiar with the Arab world will know that neither Qatar, nor Saudi Arabia has shied away from funding covert operations in their neighbourhood in recent years. Doha and Riyadh will now seek through the Arab League to arm the Free Syrian Army, provide it with organisational and logistical assistance, and perhaps even extend this to placing covert elite forces on the ground to engage in fighting.  

The key point now is for the West to ensure that this process can be moulded so as not to create a quagmire in Syria, or a repeat of Afghanistan in the 1980's where Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency subverted Western interests in favour of supporting hardline Islamists. For the West to conclude that there is no need to support forthcoming Arab action would be negligent of history. It should be understood that, as in Libya, our support is a vital component of encouraging the Arab world to take responsibility for its own affairs.

The Iranian Question

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that Iran is advising and funding the Assad regime's military and, following the arrival of Kassam Salimani -commander of the Quds Force - is now actively involved in commanding Syrian armed operations against civilians.[5]  It is instructive that neither Russia nor China have referenced this development in their attempts to prevent the conflict becoming internationalised. The chance to stop the conflict becoming a war of international interests disappeared the moment the first Iranian set foot on Syrian territory. Therefore there should be no doubt as to the misshaped use of International standards that have overshadowed the Syrian question, for they have served the uses only of those who seek to coldly support the death of innocent life in the pursuit of national interest. In the face of an alliance that views the average civilian as a mere pawn in a larger game, to not act now would be duplicity in the extreme.

Assad must go, but with Iranian support the chances of this happening are a mere illusion. Only with determination to support those who now have a stake in the future of their country will we see the regime dismantled, and be able to clearly manage a stable transition in its place. The result will be a future that is better for all Syrians, reduces Iranian influence in the Middle East, and ultimately a more stable and prosperous region.

 The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Malcolm Rifkind and Shashank Joshi 'It's time to support the opposition in the Syrian Civil War', Financial Times, 6 February 2012 <>

[2] Ahmad Al Attar and William J Moloney 'As war engulfs Syria, foreign forces could turn the tide', The National, 5 February 2011

[3] Daniel Byman 'Finish Him', Foreign Policy, 2 February 2012

[4] Isabel Coles 'Gulf States recall envoys, rap Syria over crackdown', Reuters, 8 August 2011

[5] Zvi Bar'el 'Top Iran military official aiding Assad's crackdown on Syria opposition', Haaretz, 6 February 2011


Michael Stephens
Associate Fellow

Michael Stephens was the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies. He joined RUSI’s London office in September 2010, first in the Nuclear... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research