Syria intervention - rhetoric or reality? | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 30.05.2012
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Syria intervention - rhetoric or reality?

French President Francois Hollande has added to growing pressure on Syria by saying he would not rule out international military intervention in the violence-riddled country. But such a move is far from certain.

Amid growing international outrage over the escalating violence in Syria, French President Francois Hollande said on May 29 that military intervention would not be ruled out provided it was backed by the UN Security Council.

"It is not possible to allow Bashar Assad to massacre his own people," Hollande said on French television broadcaster France 2. He added that intervention in Syria would require a UN mandate as was the case in Libya in 2011. However, a closed-door briefing on Syria for the UN Security Council ended with no results on Wednesday.

France's President Francois Hollande

New French President Hollande has sparked debate with his comments

Hollande's comments came on the same day France and several other European countries, including Germany, joined the US, Australia and Canada in expelling their Syrian ambassadors. Pressure is mounting on Syria after news of a massacre in Houla last week of 108 people - mostly women and children - sparked global outrage.

Hollande's remarks are in line with the position championed by prominent French activist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who was influential in former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's support for intervention in Libya last year. On Wednesday, Levy wrote an open letter to several European newspapers, calling on the new French president to "take the initiative in Syria."

'A phantom debate'

So, does the French stand indicate that western governments are considering a more muscular response to halt the brutal violence in Syria? Observers remain skeptical.

"It's a phantom debate. Military intervention is definitely not an option," Heiko Wimmen, an expert on Syria at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, told DW. He questioned the timing of Hollande's comments, coming ten days before parliamentary elections in France.

"We have no legal basis or a UN resolution for an intervention - and nor will there be one in the near future," Wimmen said, referring to Russia and China. Both are permanent members of the UN Security Council who remain vehemently opposed to any military intervention in Syria.

People gather at a mass burial for the victims during a massacre in Houla, Syria

The massacre in Houla in western Syria has sparked global anger

Others agree. "There is no real appetite among western nations for a classic military intervention in Syria," Andre Bank, a Syria expert at the Hamburg-based German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) told DW. The US is busy with an election campaign and focusing on reducing troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, while European capitals lack the political will despite strong rhetoric on Syria.

"Western governments are in a real dilemma," Bank added.

Syria is not Libya

It's a dilemma that European governments have recent experience in. Just over a year ago, an all-out bloody civil war in Libya ratcheted the pressure on western countries to act.

Back then, Sarkozy spearheaded a Franco-British move in NATO to aid the revolt against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In the military operation, which had a UN mandate to protect civilians, NATO conducted air strikes, enforced a no-fly zone and maintained an arms embargo with naval patrols.

But analysts point out that the situation on the ground in Syria is a far cry from Libya.

"Libya was split into east and west, there was a frontline and a rebel army capable of operating. So the West had a partner to work with," Wimmen said. "We have none of that in Syria. The country has a much bigger population, it's split along sectarian lines and many, especially minorities, are fearful of things to come if Assad were to go."

Wimmen estimated that a full-scale military intervention in Syria would mean western nations, led by the US, would have to assemble the kind of troops and military capabilities that were needed in Iraq in 2003.

Russia and Iran the key?

While the West is clearly unlikely to cough up the funds or political will for something on that scale, experts agree that the full range of diplomatic efforts has still not been exhausted in Syria - or in some cases, not even tried.

Syrian President Bashar Assad meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Assad earlier this year

Bank suggested western governments "should push other players to indirectly end the violence in Syria." In addition to working with Turkey, a NATO member, the expert suggested an unconventional tactic - talking to Syria's ally Iran.

"If there's one regional player that would have some leeway with Syria, it's Iran," Bank said. "When it comes to Iran, the West only focuses on nuclear issues. They are undoubtedly important too, but I think western powers should explore the option of informally talking with Iran on resolving the situation in Syria."

For Wimmen, another Syrian ally, Russia, holds the key to ending the bloodshed in Syria. Russia has joined China in vetoing two previous resolutions calling for tougher action on Damascus.

"Russia is crucial. If the Russians were to reconsider their position and withdraw support from Syria, it would be a huge moral blow to the regime," Wimmen said. This would also open the door to tougher sanctions on Syria and could finally crack the regime, he added.

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Simon Bone

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