The Real Reason Western Powers Want to Intervene in Syria


After this week's conference in St. Petersburg, G-20 nations issued a statement condemning the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons in the civil war that has plagued the country over the past couple of years. Leaders of Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, called for a "strong international response" that will "send a clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated."

The statement is indicative. Notably, it highlights the perhaps obvious fact that there is no consensus what is the appropriate response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons. In turn, this lack of consensus begs the question: why is it that some countries are willing to support intervention, while others are not?

The answer is by no means simple, and to provide one for each individual country would take up more space than this article can bear. Yet this not proscribes a brief macro analysis on why Western leaders are growing increasingly friendly towards an interventionist policy in Syria. For them, there is a strong diplomatic incentive to intervene in order to hold up some of the international structures that they have built over the past century.

Now, to be clear, I am by no means an interventionist. In fact, I am still undecided on military intervention in Syria, and I definitely do not support arming of the rebels. But before criticizing political leaders based on overarching ideological perspectives that seldom reflect the practical political situation at hand, it is important to understand some of the more pragmatic rationales that these countries are employing to consider military intervention in Syria.

For one, Western countries have a strong incentive to intervene in order send out a message that international codes of conduct will be upheld in the global arena. As Obama himself explains, "It is not in the national security interests of the United States to ignore clear violations" of an "international norm." To be clear, in 1925 Syria signed the Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons in war. In this way, refraining from action in Syria would reduce the de facto force of this watershed agreement, and may induce other similarly aggressive countries to take the protocol frivolously in future situations.

More broadly, intervention would send a message to countries that contemplate the usage of prohibited weapons that there is indeed punishment for violation of these internationally accepted standards. It is in the interest of the Republic of Korea, for example, to ensure that their bellicose counterpart to the North knows that international forces will reprimand any use of prohibited weaponry in warfare. A similar argument can be made for the U.S. and Iran (and many others).

Finally, there is simply the strategy of bandwagoning. Countries like Canada, Australia and Italy, are diplomatically prone to side with their long-standing Western allies. These countries know that although the war in Syria may not reverberate domestically with them, an alliance with the U.S., UK, or France, does, and thus they do not want to tarnish their relationship with any of these countries. It is therefore in their best interests to side with them than to stand in their way.

In the end, although domestically intervention may make little sense for any of these Western countries, one cannot be blind to the diplomatic incentive they have to act in Syria. This incentive must therefore be appropriately taken into consideration when criticizing intervention, especially in an increasingly globalized world in which international affairs is ever-more important; and any analysis that fails to take this diplomatic dimension into consideration is fated to be erroneous.