As President Barack Obama and other Western leaders mull arming rebels fighting the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, a leading American expert said the United States should avoid military intervention in a country where its ability to identify positive elements for the future is extremely limited.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the Middle East in Transition conference at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University on Wednesday, Michael Walzer, a professor emeritus of political theory at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and author of “Just and Unjust Wars” — perhaps the most authoritative book on the subject — said that his position on Syria gradually shifted from skepticism about US military intervention in the early days of the uprising to staunch opposition to it today.

“Now you have jihadi fighters on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other, and it really doesn’t look like there’s much to choose between,” Walzer said. “It’s almost impossible to describe a desirable outcome in this civil war, and if you don’t have a desirable outcome — you can’t intervene.”

Walzer’s comments come amid mounting Republican pressure on the administration of Barack Obama to arm the waning rebel groups in Syria, and Democratic indecision on the matter. Following a recent visit with rebels near Syria’s border with Jordan, Senator John McCain (R-Az) expressed confidence that the US could ensure that heavy weaponry reached “the right hands.”

But Walzer argued that it has become virtually impossible to identify “right hands” in today’s Syria.    

‘Now you have jihadi fighters on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other, and it really doesn’t look like there’s much to choose between’

From the early days of the Syrian uprising, Walzer argued that three conditions must be met for the US to intervene militarily, conditions that were sorely disregarded when it engaged the Qaddafi regime in Libya in 2011. Firstly, the US must “pick a winner” and make sure he is capable of governing Syria; secondly, the US must secure Assad’s weapons arsenal and prevent it from leaking into neighboring countries; and finally the new (presumably) Sunni government must guarantee the physical safety of the country’s minorities: Alawites, Druze, Christians and Kurds.

“The only way to achieve these goals is with troops on the ground,” Walzer argued, adding that no one in the American political system is willing to pay that price.

Walzer is by no means a non-interventionist. He supported American military action in places like Kosovo and Rwanda in the 1990s and in Darfur, Sudan, over the past decade. Nor does he believe that a democratic outcome is a prerequisite for military intervention where “systematic massacres” are perpetrated. For him,  the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in November 1978 and the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda that same year serve as models of justified military interventions, though neither were authorized by the UN and both were motivated more by geopolitical considerations than by humanitarian ones. “But they stopped the killing,” he said.

The Syrian case is different, however.

“In Syria, there isn’t a deliberate systematic massacre of hundreds of thousands of people. There’s a war going on, and it’s being fought with great brutality on both sides, though there’s probably a greater capacity for brutality on the government side.”

‘You can’t have elections where there are people whose goal is to to kill their enemies’

As the official death toll in Syria reached 93,000 on Thursday according to UN figures, the lack of a military option does not mean the US must stand idly by, Walzer said. Humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees could be dramatically increased, he argued, and together with the Russians the US should explore the possibility of forming a transitional government.

“There are now generals from the Syrian army fighting on both sides. Maybe we could get them together and form a military junta that could stop the killing.”

Syria’s first government could not be created by elections, Walzer said, but only through negotiations between political and military forces.

“You can’t have elections where there are people whose goal is to to kill their enemies. A system of power sharing cannot be imagined if you don’t first have an end to violence, the beginning of civil society.”

Even if military intervention does eventually become justified, for instance if the government begins systematically using chemical weapons against civilians — “not experimentally, which seems to be what has happened so far” — the obligation to intervene lies primarily with Syria’s immediate neighbors and not with distant superpowers, “who are likely to do it less well.”

“The difficulty is that the Arab world is divided,” he concluded.


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