Syria for Students

5 minute read


I’ve been tasked with helping students understand the Syria crisis and US policy options. Below is the outline of basic facts, key questions and arguments, and interesting sources. The goal was to lay out many of the smaller debates that (ideally) contribute to any policy decision on Syria. Of course many points have been simplified as the infamous Afghanistan powerpoint came to mind.

Syria Timeline:

March 2011 - Protests start

October 2011 - Opposition Syrian National Council Forms

February 2012 - Kofi Annan envoy to Syria

August 2012 - Kofi Annan resigns. US warns Assad about chemical weapons.

Dec 2012 - US, Britain, France recognize opposition National Council as legitimate representation

August 21, 2013 - accusations of chemical attack near Damascus

Parties involved:

Assad Regime

Supported by allies Russia and Iran

Father president since 1971, Bashar took over in 2000.

Opposition [BBC Guide]

100s of groups, small militias, brigades

Syrian National Council is main organization

Radical Islamic groups with ties to Al Qaeda  are among strongest

Free Syrian Army is more secular military organization

Broadly supported by Turkey and sunni monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar

United States

"Red Line" of chemical weapons

Recent memories of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan

Neighboring countries

Refugee crises in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey

Violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel

Other nations

Strong opposition to action in Britain, Germany [Cowell]

Germany has domestic concerns of economic crisis

Britain sense that Iraq was based on WMD falsehoods

France emboldened by Mali

After domestic pressure, will await UN findings [NYT]

United Nations

Security Council action routinely vetoed by China and Russia

Chemical attack inspectors

Only mandated to determine if chem weapons used, NOT who used them

Why would Assad use chemical weapons?

Could have been unintentional

US proof is panicked phone calls from Syria Ministry of Defense to Chem Unit demanding answers

Send signal that regime will defend capital at any cost [Cole]

Why do chemical weapons get a stronger reaction than conventional weapons?

Brian Price looks at historical perception of chemical weapons:

Indiscriminate,  weapon that cannot be defended against, a weapon of the weak, and an uncivilized weapon.

Also has institutional legacy

What are the possible motives for intervention, and the appropriate action for each?

Deter further chemical use

If targeted right, could influence individual soldier decisions [DeMeritt]

Action A: Small-scale symbolic strike. [Betts,  Kristof]

Action B: Judicial action such as International War Crimes Tribunal?

Degrade chemical capabilities

Delivery methods of rockets and artillery

NOT targeting chem storage because of humanitarian and environmental consequences

Action A: Severe damage?

Weaken or Punish Assad

Change Assad's policy and/or end conflict

Intervention boosts morale or opposition, but legitimizes Assad [Szekely]

Action A: Severe damage. [Betts]

Assad regime has shown high tolerance of pain [Chris Harmer]

Action B: Judicial action such as International War Crimes Tribunal [Friedman]

Action C: Arm rebels [Friedman]

Overthrow Assad

Action A: Large scale, severe military intervention

+ victory for Assad is victory for Iran [Rep. Cantor]

- would leave Syria as a failed state [Walt]

Signal WMD norm to world

Action A: Verification of use and exhaust other options before force  [Carpenter]

Action B: Judicial action such as International War Crimes Tribunal?

Action C: International outrage has already reinforced norm [Price]

Action D: Military force [Rep. Cantor]

Prevent Civilian Deaths

Syrians dying, Al Qaeda gaining, region destabilizing

But people have been dying for long time, why now?

Action A: Multilateral with right intention and appropriate method [Carpenter]

Action B: Strikes could degrade governments ability to kill [Kristof]

Action C: Increase Relief Aid [Walt]

Demonstrate US credibility

Action A: Small-scale symbolic strike?

+ signal resolve to use military action to Iran, North Korea, etc. [Petraeus]

- domestic heat already makes Obama more credible [Mercer]

End Conflict

As conflict continues, Syrians die, Al Qaeda gains, and region destabilizes [Kristof]

BUT intervention might destabilize or widen conflict [SzekelyItaly]

Action A: Land invasion

Action B:Support political process [CrisisGroup]

Military interventions must reinforce a political plan. [De Wall & Conley-Zilkec]

Action C: Strikes could make government negotiate [Kristof]

Appease/distract domestic audiences

Action A: Small-scale symbolic strike?

Is an intervention legal?  Does legality matter?

Action without UNSC approval is against international law [Hurd,Hathaway and Shapiro]

R2P is widely accepted, but lacks force of law[Hurd]

That action is illegal doesn't prevent action [Hurd]

Must act as "illegal but legitimate" or "constructive noncompliance"

Obama should declare that international law has evolved beyond SC approval

Use of force without UNSC approval endangers the international order [Hathaway & Shapiro]

- Drezner is skeptical that UN is necessary for peace

- Voeten argues that UN approval is not imperative, already full of holes

What can we learn from past interventions?

Academia speaks:

  • Peacekeeping Missions
  • Multilateral
  • Multidimensional (capacity building, refugees, elections, development)
  • Combatants willing to negotiate

What are the US domestic issues involved?

Bellwether of US foreign policy [NYT]

Iran may read congress's decision as USA's stomach for military action

Putting it to a vote

Obama has said that he is looking to build unity and enhance legitimacy [NYT]

Critics have said that Obama is passing the buck.

Appropriate to ask Congress before setting new precedent of executive power [Dellinger]

Does public opinion matter?

Hindsight, 20/20?

If trying to avoid conflict Obama should not have made threats that it couldn't back [Black]

Cannot have a punishment that is declared limited and the end of involvement. [Ulfelder]

In poker, it is trying to drive your opponent off a pot with a modest bet and weak cards

Other links of interest

NYT event tracker

NYT Aug 27 Overview

CFR's Sept. 3rd round up of CFR member opinions

Taylor Marvin's good overview of discussion and recent links

Youtube videos shown to congress (explicit)

What can we do?

UNHCR accepting donations

Write your representative (like Walt did)

You're probably now more informed than your rep is