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Syria: Options for Intervention

Mark Sedra on why retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie is plain wrong.

By: /
27 February, 2012
By: Mark Sedra
Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs

If you believe retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, we don’t really know what is going on in Syria and we should stay out of the conflict. After all, as he stated in a recent Globe and Mailopinion piece, opposition reports of “massacre, genocide, torture, child rape and beheading” are not confirmed, and are merely being used by the opposition and its sympathizers “to capture our attention.” Forget that some brave western war correspondents like Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik lost their lives reporting on the brutal repression of civilians in the besieged city of Homs, with Colvin, one of the best and most experienced in her field, calling the events she witnessed “sickening.” Forget, too, that, according to the United Nations and many credible human-rights organizations, Assad’s security apparatus has killed over 5,000 Syrian civilians. And I suppose that the 30,000 refugees that have fled into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan offering horrific tales of violence and atrocities from their homeland are also victims or even perpetrators of the same misinformation?


The reporting of the violence in Syria is, in MacKenzie’s eyes, another example “of the Western proclivity for anointing a ‘good’ side and vilifying a ‘bad’ side” in a conflict. In an attempt to peer behind the biased western media curtain, MacKenzie notes that Assad and his ruling clique come from the Alawite religious sect that makes up just 10 per cent of the majority Sunni Syria, with the implication that they are somehow a minority under threat. The fact that the Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades, heavily favouring its co-religionists at the expense of the wider population, does not seem to deserve mention in MacKenzie’s analysis. Like many recent opponents of western engagement in Syria, MacKenzie cites a Doha Debates poll from early January that found that 55 per cent of Syrians support the Assad regime in spite of the upheaval. What he neglects to mention is that the poll (conducted by YouGov Siraj) only interviewed 97 Syrians, many of whom were outside the country. I would hardly call this an adequate sample size.  

The central argument for MacKenzie, like other standard bearers of non-intervention in the Middle East, is that radical Islamists have infiltrated the Syrian opposition. Accordingly, if the West were to sign up with the opposition, we would be siding with “al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood” just as we supposedly did in Libya. Such notions, presented with no evidence whatsoever, represent one of the great myths of the uprisings in the Middle East – that somehow radical Islam is driving them. While there is no denying that the fractious assemblage of opposition forces in Syria and other Arab states contain Islamist elements, they are by no means a driving force in the movements that represent, above all, a reaction to decades of authoritarian state oppression.

Contrary to what MacKenzie may claim, a humanitarian catastrophe is indeed unfolding in Syria, and the international community should not sit idly by while it deepens. Where MacKenzie is right is that a direct military intervention is not feasible, for a variety of political and strategic reasons that myself and others have explained elsewhere. Pressing Russia to hold its Syrian ally to account is one approach that should be taken – and the Russians have shown increasing impatience with the Assad regime in recent days – but others should also be considered: applying an array of robust and targeted sanctions and even blockading Syrian ports; using limited force to create a safe zone or humanitarian corridor for Syrian civilians and opposition groups; and even arming Syrian opposition forces. All of these options carry risks, but with the situation deteriorating and the spillover effects for an already volatile region profound, the window of opportunity to act may be now. It is certainly convenient for us in the West to pretend that what is happening in Syria and across the Arab world is not as serious as it seems, and that it is first and foremost an Arab problem, but, unfortunately, this logic denies the facts and the responsibility of wealthy, stable states like Canada to contribute to global peace and security.

Photo courtesy Reuters.

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