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Intervening in Syria

The record of US military action since World War II raises serious concerns about the wisdom of intervening in Syria today:

  1. The rationale for interventions of this type has often been contradicted by information available later.  In the debate leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, TV personalities in the US and Britain were fired for raising too many questions about intelligence that later turned out to be wrong.  

  2. The benefits of military force have routinely been overstated.

  3. Mission creep seems inevitable.

  4. The risk of blowback is far higher than typically assumed.

  5. Instead, we should push harder for deescalation. Violence begets violence, while democracy and rule of law are promoted by nonviolence.1

The current reports of Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons should be compared with similar claims in 2002 and 2003 that Saddam Hussein had such weapons. Those claims became the primary motivation for the US invasion of Iraq. Prior to that invasion, United Nations weapons inspectors insisted that Hussein did not have those weapons.2 The mainstream media suppressed those reports. Leading figures in the mainstream media in the US and Britain were fired for trying to raise questions about "information" that later proved to be wrong. This included the popular TV personality Donahue3 plus the Chairman of the Board of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), its Director General, and a reporter.4

The mainstream media in the US also avoided mentioning that Iraq had received such chemical warfare technology from the Reagan administration and had used them against US troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.5 A massive search after the invasion failed to find the chemical weapons that earlier reports insisted were certainly there.6

Mission creep may be inevitable if the US gets involved in Syria – unless it breaks with the pattern seen in recent US involvement in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. The United Nations No-Fly resolution in Libya was interpreted by NATO to allow actions having nothing to do with suppressing aviation. Russia and others who supported or abstained on the "no-fly" resolution were upset when it was used to justify NATO's support for the rebels.7 More research is required to better understand how this resolution was approved and interpreted by NATO in Libya.

We also need more research to determine if the US, its allies, and the Libyan people are better off today because of that intervention. The assassination of US ambassador Christopher Stevens suggests that some people may not think so.8 It is similarly unclear if the world is safer and more prosperous as a result of the military operations by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Are there more or fewer terrorists targeting the West today than there would have been without those operations?9

In the present situation, we should promote measures to deescalate this conflict. Syrians of different ethnic groups need to find ways to set aside their differences and work together to build a better future for all. If they cannot develop civil society, they may need a dictator to keep peace.

Research into the major governmental change efforts of the 20th century found that virtually all the gains by rebels were achieved through defections. Moreover, defections were twice as likely from nonviolence as from violence.10 As a bonus, the gains from nonviolence tended to be greater than from violence.11

People all over the world can help by supporting research to better understand what motivates people to leave the sidelines to support one side or the other in conflict or to increase or decrease their support. Such research could increase human knowledge in ways that could improve the chances of nonviolent resolution of similar conflicts in the future, reducing the risks of escalation to violence.12

Spencer Graves

Aug 31, 2013

Copyright 2013 under the Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike license.

1Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2011) Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia U. Pr.). Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman (2005) How Freedom Is Won: From Civil Resistance to Durable Democracy (Freedom House; “”, accessed July 2, 2011).

2Wikipedia, "2003 invasion of Iraq" (, accessed August 30, 2013

3Wikipedia, "Phil Donahue" (, accessed August 30, 2013

4Wikipedia, "Hutton Inquiry" and "David Kelly (weapons expert)" [;], accessed August 30, 2013

5Wikipedia, "Riegle Report ( ), accessed August 30, 2013

6Wikipedia, "Iraq and weapons of mass destruction" (, accessed August 30, 2013

7United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized a no-fly zone over Libya. It was approved on March 17, 2011 by a vote of 10 in favor, none against, and 5 abstentions. Military operations began on March 19 with air strikes "against armoured units south of Benghazi and attacks on Libyan air-defence systems". On March 21, Putin complained that UNSC Res. 1973 "is defective and flawed ... . It allows everything." Wikipedia, "2011 military intervention in Libya" ( ), accessed August 30, 2013

8Wikipedia, "2012 Benghazi attack" ( ), accessed August 30, 2013.

9Jeremy Scahill claims that the lists of drone targets started with an occasional one or two and grew to hundreds per day. Scahill suggests this increase is due to people previously on the sidelines changing to support US enemies, because they believe that US use of force was criminal and must be resisted. An alternative explanation is that the use of drones is fairly new, and the procedures for using them has evolved over time. We need research to determine the extent to which each theory best describes the available data. Scahill (2013) Dirty Wars (Nation Books); Wikipedia, "Dirty Wars" ( ), accessed August 30, 2013.

10Chenoweth and Stephan led a team of international experts in identifying all the major governmental change efforts of the twentieth century. Their experts identified 105 nonviolent change efforts and 218 violent movements. Full or partial success was achieved by 53% of the nonviolent campaigns but only 26% of the violent efforts. Success in virtually all cases was achieved in large part through defections from the established authorities, and the leaders key supporters were more likely to defect when confronted with nonviolent resistance than violence. See Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2011) Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia U. Pr.).

11In addition to Chenoweth and Stephan (2011), see also Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman (2005) How Freedom Is Won: From Civil Resistance to Durable Democracy (Freedom House; “”, accessed July 2, 2011).

12Research of this nature is outlined in the Wikiversity article on "Evolution of conflict" (, accessed August 30, 2013