There have been a number of recent uprising throughout the Middle East. This wave of democratic uprisings, known collectively as the Arab Spring, would arrive to motivate the Syrian people to confront their long pent-up enmity for the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian conflict has come to gain the attention of the world, including the major global hegemonic powers. An ever expanding network of influence has gained control over the situation, and this complex and undefined power structure has served to exacerbate an already tense situation. The interventionist actions of the United States seem to be increasing in intensity, and the Obama administration has called for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad (Rettig). However, the administration has yet to follow trough on their commitment to use military force against the regime once it was discovered that chemical weapons were used against the Syrian people (Hennessey, Richter).
The actions of the Obama administration and the international community seems to indicate a lack of the political will necessary for military intervention or a successful transfer of power from the stubborn Assad regime (Carswell). Yet, the United States continues to call for regime change within Syria, while escalating it’s interventionist actions which promises to destabilize all progress towards any possible peace which would not include the removal of the regime from power. The prolonged civil war within Syria has lead to an increased focus on the questions regarding inconsistencies among American and international interventionist policy. Why has the Obama administration failed to commit to military strikes against the Assad regime in response to the chemical attacks, whereas the violation of human rights within Libya justified direct military strikes by the United Nations? Is the United States’ truly committed to the removal of Assad in defense of the Syrian public, or are there other geopolitical motivations behind the United States’ actions in the area?
When considering the role of American intervention in Syria, it is also important to reflect on the recent interventionists actions by the United Nations Security Counsel in Libya. In William Ian’s article titled Libya a Cautionary Tale for International Intervention in Syria (Ian), William’s discusses several failures on the part of the intergovernmental military alliance known as NATO, or the North American Treaty Organization, during the U.N. intervention into Libya. Ian’s outlines an ineffective followup of the security resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya, and how the actions of the U.N. would ultimately lead to an extended conflict in Libya.
Similar to Bashar al-Assad, Col Mummer Qaddafi attempted to punish the citizens of Libya for having the audacity to challenge his authoritarian regime with ever growing demands for democracy. Qaddafi would attempt to suppress this growing criticism through the increased use of violence and intimidation tactics. In response to these brutal acts, The United Nations Security Council would agree on an intervention into Libya (“NATO Starts Patrolling Air Space Over Libya”), and while the air power supplied by NATO successfully neutralize the regimes ability to utilize heavy weaponry, the failure on the part of the Security Council to require regime change would lead to a situation where the international community had to act as if it was trying not to get rid of Qaddafi. and as a result it could not effectively shape the replacement regime. Ian would go on to note that this would also result in a lack of political resolve among the member nations, and this would ultimately result in an extended conflict, resulting in additional unnecessary casualties.
Since International Law does not articulate the normative standards as to when international military intervention is justified, the criteria that justifies intervention is left up to the discretion of the worlds various national leaders. The ultimate decision by the Obama administration to not confront the Assad regime with direct military intervention seems to indicate the lack of the political resources necessary to justify these strikes. Human rights supporters opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria argue that prolonged intervention by the United States and it’s allies, or the imposition of a “no fly zone” within Syria would ultimately serve to prolong the violence and further destabilize the country. (Pasquini) They claim that continued intervention by the United States in Syria or anywhere in the Middle East, prevents the people from within those countries from developing democratic institutions and leaders that reflect the interests of the Syrian population, rather than the interest of world capitals or the U.S. hegemony.
Human rights supporters and similar non-state actors wouldn’t be the only ones to criticize U.S. military intervention in Syria. When President Obama asked Congress to authorize use of military force against Syria in response to the regimes’s use of chemical weapons agains Syrian civilians, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would return from early recess to to vote 10-8 in favor for use of military force within Syria. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia would comment on the result of the vote among the SFRC saying that the closeness of the vote was an indication of the skepticism among the American public in whether military action would make a positive difference in the Syrian conflict. With such a skeptical American populous and with criticism coming from members of the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration has proven apprehensive in dedicating the military resources necessary to facilitate the administration’s clearly documented goal of removing the Assad regime from power. “It’s not a skepticism about our military,” Kaine said. “It’s not a skepticism about their valor and their capacity; it’s a skepticism about whether military action particularly, as opposed to humanitarian or diplomatic, can actually move the needle, can change the circumstances for the good.”
With so much apparent skepticism of an interventionist policy few identify as helping the situation (Plumer), and the Obama administration’s and NATO’s apparently unreliable resolve to bring military action against the Assad regime (Diehl), one is left to wonder if there are other, less obvious, geopolitical motivations behind the United States involvement in Syria. The Obama administration has proven to be an “exemplar of realism (Bardley)” in many respects, so it is important to consider the actions of the United States in Syria from the realist approach to international relations. The realist approach to international relations focuses on the power, security, and interest of sovereign states, and does not take into consideration the interest of non-state actors inso much as they do not challenge or facilitate the actions of the state (Shiraev 42). The reluctance on the part of the United States to force the removal of Assad from power illustrates a reluctance to directly challenge what remains of the sovereignty of the Assad regime, in spite of the recent atrocities committed on the Syrian people at the hand of the regime (Sadat, Jones). The pervasiveness of the Assad regime speaks to the pervasiveness of status quo states in general, and how the delicate balances of power that currently exists to keep control in these volatile regions cannot be removed readily once it has become targeted by the international community on humanitarian grounds
Examining the Assad regime from the realist perspective of international relations could also help explain the purpose behind the interventionist actions of the United States in Syria. According to realists, states try to build order in the situation of anarchy. (Shiraev 42) Further degradation of the Assad regime or the sudden removal of Bashar al-Assad from power could result in continued fighting as opposition militant groups carve out their own fiefdoms throughout Syria. (Peter) This would lead to a progression of the state of anarchy within Syria, as the supreme executive power would ultimately be removed from the complex balance of power within Syria, leaving a power vacuum that would be quickly filled by extremist groups and other non-state actors looking to take advantage of any possible power vacuum during regime change. (“Power Vacuum” in Syria). This complex balance of power between state and non-state actors within Syria has lead to a looming threat of complete anarchy that seems to favor the Assad regime. (George)
The Assad regime has another strong source of domestic security in the form of the powerful security regime that has come out in support of the embattled government. Russia’s involvement in the crisis, in the form of both diplomatic and military support, (Charap) has allowed the Assad regime to maintain it’s position of power within Syria, while also generating a danger of increased tensions among the world’s major hegemonic powers, especially if the United States were to attack the Assad regime directly. Secretary of State John Kerry would go on to tell his Russian counterparts at the Kremlin that a move by the Russian Government to support the regime might lead to a “confrontation” with the American-led coalition, and that these actions could further escalate the conflict. (Gordon) The interventions into Syria by both Russia and the United States illustrates the strong realist desire to maintain the most favorable position within the international order in the Middle East, and both seem to be willing to use either violent or non-violent means to attain their goals. Russia’s recent military resurgence in the Middle East may have complicated an already complex power struggle in Syria, but it also increased Russia’s geopolitical role in the region. According to realist views, a gain in power by one state is often a “zero-sum” game, and states should watch each others relative gains as it could pose an essential threat to a state. (Shiraev 61) This would imply that the recent resurgence of Russia into Syria would mean that Russia has replaced the United States strategically as the major political power in the region. Russia has been willing to use military force directly against Assad’s opposition, while the United States would prove reluctant to strike Assad’s forces directly. Russia’s involvement in Syria certainly limits certain military intervention options on the part of the United States, and this ultimately limits the United States’ overall influence on the outcome of the civil war in Syria.
The various interventions into Syria by the United States and other global powers illustrates the continued relevance of Realism in the modern age, and examining the interventionist actions of the United States in Syria from a realist perspective could possibly help explain the sometimes questionable involvement of the United States in the conflict. The increased scrutiny and criticism from both domestic parties, such as human rights supporters and members of Congress, could also help to explain why the Obama administration has proven hesitant to use direct military force against the Assad regime following the chemical attacks on the Syrian people, and helps to illustrate an American public that is unsure of the effectiveness of American intervention into the region.
Considering the interventionist policies of the United States from the realist perspective aides in the identification of other possible motivations behind the Obama administrations actions in Syria, such as the possible unwillingness on the part of the United States to foster an environment of anarchy within Syria, but no matter the motivations of the United States, Russia’s resurgence into the Middle East in support of Assad surely serves to challenge the overall influence of the United States in the region, and also complicates any future military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. While the criteria regarding international humanitarian intervention are unclear, the Unites States’ involvement in the region is surely resulting in an extended conflict, and the threat of unintentional skirmishes with the Russian’s are a very real danger.
Jessica Rettig. Obama Calls for Syrian President Assad to Step Down. Washington: U.S. News and World Report, 2011. Print.
Kathleen Hennessey, and Paul Richter. “Obama Steps Up Campaign for Congress’ Support for Syria Strikes.” McClatchy – Tribune News Service 2013. Print.
Simon Carswell. “Leaders Refuse to Back Obama on Syria: US President Faces Uphill Battle to Secure Congressional Approval for Intervention.” Irish Times: 1. 2013. Print.
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Gordon, Michael. U.S. Warns Russia Over Military Support for Assad. New York: New York Times Company, 2015. Print