The Ethics of Staying out of Syria

by Benjamin Studebaker

There are a lot of people who are writing, and who have been writing, that there should be an international intervention in Syria. I think that such an intervention would not only be against the interests of intervening countries, but also disastrous for Syria and the Syrian people. Here’s why.

The national interest case is pretty basic, and it’s one with which many people are familiar. Like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and other places where the West has intervened, there is likely to be a poor return on investment for nations intervening in Syria. A government that is seen to have been installed only with the aid of the West invariably struggles to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of its people. It is often neglected in commentary on the Arab Spring that the Mubarak regime in Egypt was heavily funded by the West–and that one of the motivating factors for Egyptians in deposing him was anti-Israeli/US sentiment. The Gaddafi regime in Libya received substantial support from Italy, France, and Britain, and the Assad regime in Syria is quietly preferred by Israel, which fears a more militantly anti-Israeli government in Syria. Add it together, and the Arab Spring is as much a revolt against governments unduly supported by the West as it is a revolt in favour of democracy. Even in the countries where the West did depose governments that were near-universally deemed despicable (the Taliban, Saddam Hussein), there is a long history of those very governments formerly having been backed by the West (Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq War). In Egypt and Tunisia, it was not secular liberal candidates who prevailed electorally, but Islamist candidates. In Libya, a secular liberal won the election but has been unsuccessful in bringing peace to the country, and the conflict has spread into Mali, where mercenaries from the Libyan civil war have now sparked a civil conflict in that country, a conflict which goes barely reported in Western media.

What’s the upshot of that? There’s a bit of a cycle with Western interventions into Middle Eastern nations, in which a revolution happens and an new regime comes to power, often with tacit or explicit Western support. The regime takes Western military and foreign aid money and serves as a launching pad for Western foreign policy in the region, while the West looks past repressive domestic government policies and rampant corruption. Eventually, support for the regime decays at home, and the regime is tossed out, in favour of a new government. Trying to stay ahead of the curve, the West will support the new government, and the cycle begins again. Those who think the Arab Spring is new should note that this sort of revolutionary process has been on-going throughout the post-imperial era–the Arab Spring is remarkable not for the kind of revolution, but for the frequency of revolution. The cycles of many Middle Eastern nations happened to line up at the right time. Precious few Middle Eastern governments survive more than a generation or two (Saudi Arabia’s government is among the eldest, about a century old). Perpetuating this cycle is good neither for the West nor for the Middle East. The West is throwing good resources after bad, and the primary result has been the hatred of the people of the region, who toss out governments backed by the West every generation or so. An extreme minority even become terrorists. The West need not control Middle Eastern governments to import Middle Eastern oil–it is in the interest of developing Middle Eastern countries to export their oil anyway. All the West does when it intervenes, even when those interventions seem ethical, even when it seems that the people of country in question would welcome the West as “liberators”, is prolong this cycle of Middle Eastern governmental dependence and the violence and suffering that comes with it.

The Middle Eastern people, for their part, are held back by this cycle of intervention. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, nearly every single Middle Eastern government has been created by the West or has been reliant on the West for its funding and power. These governments are naturally inclined to care more about what the West wants rather than what is best for their people and, despite the rhetoric, this is not always the same thing. Take Nigeria–Nigeria’s government is supported by the West and is experiencing a substantial amount of terrorism and civil unrest. What is the cause of the unrest? The fact that Nigeria’s oil wealth has been appropriated by Western oil companies, who share the nation’s wealth with the government, which then pockets that wealth and keeps it from the Nigerian people. During the colonial period, the wealth of the Middle East was shipped out to enrich Europe. In modern Western-dominated countries, it is shipped out to enrich the West, but a portion of it is given to governments, who then spend as little as they can possibly get away with on bettering the living conditions of their people. When Middle Easterners overthrow their governments, it is an expression of desire to reclaim their nations for the people and away from the corrupt regimes, but when the West intervenes, the very Middle Easterners who are meant to be salvation become the new slavers.

What should be done? The West can start by doing nothing. Foreign and humanitarian aid to the Middle East should either come without policy constraints or not at all. Military interventions, should be avoided altogether. While this may lead to Middle Eastern nations trying foreign policies that are less pro-Israel or do not favour Western oil companies, it will also lead to Middle Easterners taking back their governments and doing what they believe is best for them. Learning through experience is their only way to make progress. If one or more of these countries can successfully use oil or mineral wealth to develop a strong, competitive, industrial economy, the economic pay-off to the West through increased participation of such a country in the global trade market would make any short term disappointments seem insignificant. In the long-run, periods of violence and civil unrest, however troublesome and fraught with human rights abuses they might be, will pay off if they result in real, meaningful progress.  If the West intervenes and the cycle begins again, all the deaths will be in vain.

Who knows this lesson better than the West, with its long history of resolving political conflicts through violent revolutions? Does anyone really imagine we would be better off if, historically, every time civil strife happened in Western nations, a foreign power intervened and set up a new government? Would we be better off if foreigners intervened in the American, French, and English revolutions? I think not. I think those conflicts, while regrettable in their violence and bloodshed, have made us who we are today, and we are better off from having confronted the issues they pushed to the fore. So let us give the people of the Middle East the same opportunity to which we were afforded. Let us leave them alone.


The conflict in Mali has since ended. For more information on how that turned out, start with Wikipedia.