This is a summary of discussions that took place in a closed-door study group bringing together experts from Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa, International Law and International Security programmes.
With little or no prospect for a negotiated end to the civil conflict in Syria, the discussion focused on the prospects for foreign intervention across a range of options, taking into account the current diplomatic stalemate, existing lines of support to conflicting parties, and alternative international approaches that may emerge as the situation deteriorates.
- Foreign intervention is already occurring, semi-covertly, in the form of weapons supply and training to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), logistical and communications support, and non-military actions such as sanctions, together with diplomatic support (if not full recognition) for opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council (SNC).
- The choice is no longer one of intervention versus non-intervention, but rather between maintaining or increasing existing levels of external intervention and allowing the conflict to drift. Intervention is occurring at a number of levels and there is a need for the international community to consider carefully both the consequences of the ongoing semi-covert intervention and the possible consequences of more overt military intervention.
- The decision over whether to escalate intervention should rest on a thorough examination of the 'balance of consequences' and on other relevant factors including the constraints of international law. The costs and risks of different forms of intervention also have to be weighed against the risks and costs of non-intervention.
- The most likely options for scaled-up intervention are the supply of more and heavier arms to the FSA and an intensification of covert action; punitive air strikes triggered by a major crisis such as a massacre in Aleppo; and an intensification of externally imposed sanctions. The risks associated with the first two scenarios are high and the benefits are not easily quantifiable in view of the inevitable unforeseen consequences.