Qatar’s leader suggests sending troops to Syria

The Financial Times reported today,

Arab troops should be sent to end the bloodshed in the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Qatar’s ruler has said, the first public call for military action as political efforts to halt the violence unravel.

Qatar’s leader, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in an interview to be broadcast on the CBS program “60 Minutes” on January 15, stated,

“For such a situation to stop the killing … some troops should go to stop the killing,”

The question of military intervention in Syria by international forces has now been openly put on the table.

The Emir’s remarks, in an interview due to be broadcast on Sunday, raise the stakes hugely in a conflict in which even Mr Assad’s enemies abroad have shied away from suggesting military intervention. Western and Arab powers fear the potentially destructive regional impact of war in a country allied with Tehran and which lies at the geographical and political heart of the Middle East.

–Michael Peel (Abu Dhabi), “Qatar calls for intervention to end Syria violence,” Financial Times, January 14, 2012.

For a nuanced analysis of the signicance of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s statement, see Al Jazeera English’s news report and interview on January 14 with leading Lebanese commentator Rami Khoury, on YouTube here.

What form of military intervention from outside could actually bring the killing to a halt?

First, it is not clear that outside military intervention could in fact stop the bloodshed in Syria, and indeed it could contribute to the country hurtling quickly into an all-out civil war. Consequently, any military action that might be taken would need to be carefully planned, highly calibrated, and based on a strategic vision that takes into account the need to protect different minorities in Syria and the potential actions and reactions of other players in the region, including Hezbollah and Iran.

Second, international intervention, including potential military intervention, could become necessary to halt the country’s accelerating slide into civil war, which itself could become extremely destabilizing for the region.

In view of the above, it is clear that the international community faces an immense challenge, and is called upon to steer between Scylla and Charybdis in seeking a solution to the conflict within Syria.

Should military action from abroad become necessary, and feasible, what are the broad shape and contours that it might assume?

The Arab League has little peacekeeping experience, and its decisions can be easily stalled or blocked by countries which oppose or least favor intervention. Bashar al Assad gained months by feigning to agree to an Arab League peace plan which involves Arab monitors from the League. The mission of the monitors, who are now in Syria, has been a fiasco, despite the immense courage and dedication shown by many of the members of the monitoring team.

Consequently, it does not seem to be a good idea to simply defer to the Arab League, by itself, to take charge of whatever military steps may be undertaken in Syria.

Arab League “regional enforcement action” under Article 53 of the U.N. Charter–without Security Council authorization–may be a theoretical option for sponsoring military action so long as Russian defense of al Assad remains fierce, but in practice it would be problematical and probably engender strong Russian and Chinese opposition.

While there is a history and a long string of precedents for “regional enforcement action” by the Organization of American States, and U.S. legal positions that such action is permitted under international law so long as the Security Council does not disapprove the action, this does not seem to be a promising path to pursue. The line of precedent is in some regards a relic of the Cold War, and goes against the actual text of Article 53 of the Charter, which states:

“1. The Security Council shall, where appropriate, utilize such regional arrangements or agencies for enforcement action under its authority. But no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council, … until such time as the Organization may, on request of the Governments concerned, be charged with the responsibility for preventing further aggression by such a state.”

Yet, even Russia may tire of defending war criminals whose ongoing attacks on civilians are on daily display on television and video throughout the world.

If and when Russian opposition is overcome or neutralized, the United Nations Security Council could seize direct responsibility for authorizing military actions necessary to protect civilians in Syria. Soldiers from Arab countries could constitute the bulk of the “boots” on the ground. However, U.S. and NATO involvement would also be required, either in public or behind the scenes, in order to provide the logistical, communications, and intelligence support necessary to make the operation a success.

The experience of NATO in Libya, where momentum was lost due to hesitation and inaction when the diplomats were making the military decisions, suggests the need for a clear separation between the political and diplomatic decisions necessary to authorize military action, on the one hand, and the small, close-knit, and unified military command that would decide upon and execute military actions, on the other.

The details remain murky, and in the end U.N. Security Council action will be contingent on Russian acquiescence and the absence of a Russian veto.

Military action in Syria is fraught with risks, and will in any event take considerable time to take shape and become a viable option.

In the meantime, the Security Council could immediately act to grant the International Criminal Court authority to investigate the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by al Assad’s government, and also by any other forces within the country. What arguments could Russia, or anyone else, make against such action? In order to protect civilians, this, at least, should be done now.

The Trenchant Observer