When NGOs Call For Military Intervention in Syria: The Case of the International Crisis Group

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In July 2011, a mere four months into the Syria revolt, the venerable, Brussels-based conflict-mitigation NGO, International Crisis Group (ICG), released a lengthy report with the provocative title, "The Syrian Regime's Slow-motion Suicide."

"The situation has reached an apparent stalemate," the report's authors declared, "but it would be wrong to bet on the status quo enduring. Economic conditions are worsening; should they reach breaking point the regime could well collapse. Predominantly Allawite security forces are overworked, underpaid and increasingly worried. They could conclude that the regime is unsalvageable and defect, precipitating its end."

By projecting such certainty that the regime was essentially in its death-throes, and then ignoring any serious discussion about how Russia, Iran or Lebanon's Hezbollah might possibly intervene to change the calculus (the trio are barely mentioned in the report), ICG laid an important intellectual plank for the erroneous assumption that was then gathering steam in so many world capitals: It was just a matter of time before the regime led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad imploded.

Regrettably, ICG's overconfidence in regime suicide not only encouraged the premature and disastrous rejection of diplomacy that has helped prolong the Syria war. It also essentially abdicated the main role for which peace, promotion, and conflict mitigation NGOs exist in the first place: Advocating for strong international engagement and negotiated solutions that regard the safety of civilian populations as paramount.

"The international community's options remain limited," the report concluded. "The world's cautious attitude has been a source of deep frustration and even anger for the protesters. That is entirely understandable, yet such caution might well be a blessing in disguise. The regime is unlikely to respond to international pressures, regardless of their provenance. Ultimately, the burden lies with the protesters..."

Should a leading NGO dedicated to active, international involvement in crises simply throw up its hands and say there isn't much outside actors can do other than watch? And might not good-faith diplomacy -- instead of a false choice between military intervention or passivity -- offer the best way to minimize any fallout if the regime doesn't end up committing suicide?

Fast-forward to this past week, and one can see that ICG has finally answered these lingering questions with the publication of a report titled, "New Approach in Southern Syria" that expands on a late-April "policy framework."

In sharp contrast to its stance four years ago, ICG now asserts that the situation in Syria is dangerously stuck in a cycle of disintegration and expanding radicalism that benefits neither the regime nor a much diminished "moderate opposition."

Voyeurism is no longer an option -- a conclusion with which almost all observers can agree.

But the authors then make a significant turn for a conflict-mitigation group, arguing that introducing more layers of conflict -- armed "escalation" led by America -- is essentially the only credible way forward:

"The US is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement."

Although cloaked in the soft language of "prevention," the report later clarifies that, "Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime's backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad's use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment. The US needs to be ready to pursue other means at its disposal, and to signal that readiness."

Incredibly, despite years of argument over the problems associated with exactly the sort of US-led military escalation that ICG is now recommending, not to mention the broad academic debate over the humanitarian implications of further deepening an armed conflict, zero discussion ensues in the report about how or where the regime and its allies might retaliate and whether the costs of such retaliation might outweigh the intended benefits. Similarly, no consideration is given to a central question for US and European policymakers: What if a no-fly zone ends up precipitating the collapse of Assad's government, unleashing an even larger refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and providing potentially fertile ground for an ISIS takeover of even more territory?

In fact, the only passing reference to these absolutely crucial issues is the hopeful sentence that a US "demonstration of resolve" (the exercise of military power) should be joined with a parallel one "indicating US willingness to take the core interests of the regime's backers into account in any political deal to end the war."

This extremely vague formulation, the authors propose, "might dampen Iranian incentive to retaliate." As for Russia, the report finds time to mention Moscow only three times in the main text and never in regards to its possible responses - a bizarre oversight given the significance of Russia's support for Assad as well as recent reports of Russian military personnel deploying to Syria in increasingly large numbers.

In one sense, of course, the complete lack of consideration given to the potential dangers of recommending US military intervention is somewhat understandable. After all, ICG is not an organization that specializes in military affairs, military strategy or military history. In fact, its experts in the region that I have known over the past decade rarely have had any military experience.

The deeper problem, however, is that ICG gives no consideration to the possibility of a third way to approach the Syria conflict. Nothing is said in regards to the prospect of the US and the European Union applying greater pressure on its close allies in the region -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar -- to reign in the forces that they have helped unleashed and are still funding in the Syrian civil war. And scant consideration is given to the costs and benefits of the US changing tack by no longer demanding that Assad step down before a settlement is hammered out. Instead, the report merely states flatly that, "The political costs, domestically and internationally, of reversing policy toward Assad are prohibitive, and such a shift would exacerbate the jihadi problem."

Of course, these third way options, among several others, may not be advisable. But who else can responsibly interrogate the possibilities and pitfalls of diplomatic alternatives except groups like ICG?

Shutting off a discussion of such avenues, and then vainly assuming that the Axis around Assad will play nice when confronted militarily by the US - especially in the sensitive areas of Southern Syria and the Occupied Golan Heights no less - may be a perfectly reasonable exercise for a range of think tanks, politicians and pundits the world over.

But when it comes to the International Crisis Group, it looks a lot more like a basic abdication of the central duty for which the organization was originally founded.