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Why Intervening In Syria is Still a Bad Idea

March 7, 2013

Wars begin when you will, they do not end when you wish – Machiavelli The Discourse on Livy

Two months ago, I wrote a piece in which I argued against any intervention in the Syrian civil war. At the time I argued against it on the ground that it would be difficult and expensive. The situation is different today, and yet fundamentally the same. It is different in that the Syrian military – worn down by nearly two years of fighting – is far more vulnerable to outside military intervention. However the continued fighting has radicalized the resistance, making the outcome less certain than before. Whereas earlier, when it would have been harder to topple Assad, but it easier to transition to a new form of government, it is now easy to topple Assad, but nearly impossible tell what would happen next. Things bring me to the crux of my argument. We have no idea how an intervention will end, and our national interest is not threatened enough to risk an open ended adventure.

Not only could our intervention make the situation worse, but even if everything broke our way, our national interest would only be marginally improved. To take such a great risk, only to have a limited return on investment is not a good foreign policy. The second major reason against any intervention is that should we intervene we cannot be an honest broker anymore. The rebels tend to be Sunnis, while the regime and its supporters tend to be Alawites, Shia, Christians, Druzes, and Jews. In intervening on the side of the rebels, we alienate all the groups that support the Assad regime out of fear of a majoritarian Sunni country. Thus we must realize that this situation is extremely complicated and that there are no easy answers when it comes to us intervening. This is not the French Resistance against the Nazis, to think that it is, is to be either historically illiterate, full of hubris, or both. And if Iraq taught us anything at all, it is that the Middle East is far more complicated that we commonly appreciate. Finally, and this relates to the first. The United States has far more important things to worry about. As terrible as it sounds, American national interest is not at stake in Syria. However should we intervene we would be tied up should China attempt to force the Straights of Taiwan, North Korea roll south, or Iran and Israel get into a real shooting war.

A post script.

Many have backed off the idea of a direct intervention in favor of simply arming the rebels, a no fly zone, or both, on the principle that Assad has already lost, and that we may as well have leverage over the rebels after their inevitable victory. The problem with the no fly zone is that Syrian artillery is now the main killer of Syrians. The problem with arming the opposition is more complicated. Imagine we arm them, and then they win. What happens next? They will disarm the Syrian army which will provide the opposition groups with even more weapons. They will then sit down to attempt to write a constitution. The rebels can be placed broadly in four categories. The liberals, who want a constitution that respects individual rights, the rule of law, and is mostly secular. There are the moderate Sunni Islamists, who want democracy, and a tinge of Islamism to the constitution, perhaps stating that Syria is an Islamic nation. There are the hardline Sunni Islamists, those who think that a radical form of Sharia law should be imposed, and that Syria is not only an Islamic nation, but a Sunni one as well. Finally there would be the minority factions, Christians, Druzes, Jews, Alawites, and Shia Muslims. They would demand special protections for their groups as the Sunni majority does not like them all that much. The liberals and Sunnis would reject this either because it violates liberalism’s principle that all are equal under the law, or simply because they do not like these groups. The radical and moderate Sunnis would disagree over how much Islamism should be injected into the government and the liberals would despair at the parochialism and sectarian nature of the whole exercise. When these disparate factions fail to create a government, what will they do? They are armed to the teeth with the weapons they have taken from the army. They will fight one another. If we arm them, it wont stop it, it will just mean that a lot of people will be killed with weapons that have “U.S.A.” stamped on the side.

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4 Comments
  1. Daniel Froehling permalink

    I still disagree with you on this point, and perhaps this is where I should clarify myself.

    I’m of the opinion that arming the rebels isn’t the best of ideas for the reasons you yourself stated. I’ve never been of the opinion that the US should march in guns a’blazing. This would land American troops right in the middle of a firefight that very well may happen. That is what I don’t want to see happen.

    The one action I feel that the US should take in Syria is to institute a no-fly zone. American planes would only ever be in Syrian airspace and Americans would not be at risk. Moreover the munitions that we would deploy couldn’t be used in the future. This would ground the Syrian airforce, hasten the destruction of the Assad regime, and save lives. It is in our moral interest to help save lives, and I think America can do this one small thing.

    Moreover, I find that our moral interests and our national interests are often one and the same. After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan America quickly lost interest in the country because it was just another one of those Stans without any natural resources or Communists to kill. The United States learned later than lawlessness anywhere in a globalized world can mean lawlessness everywhere.

    What we would gain from intervening in Syria is the acknowledgment that the United States does actually try to stop atrocities commited by governments against their own people. We actually do stand for certain concepts of freedom, peace, and basic human rights. More than anyone, the Syrians will know this. Just like Germans have a relationship with the United States because of a shared national history, Syrians will remember any token that the US gives in support. Too often people discuss national interest like bankers and forget much of international relations is simple PR.

  2. I read an interesting essay the other day on this topic. It was written more than a year ago; I was surprised how true all of his statements are.

    What Would A Syrian Intervention Actually Look Like?
    Andy. Organizing Entropy. 16 Feb 2012.

    Dan said:

    “What we would gain from intervening in Syria is the acknowledgment that the United States does actually try to stop atrocities commited by governments against their own people”

    And we would gain this acknowledgement from whom? And even if such acknowledgements mattered, would it be worth anything if America is holding up the Saudi regime at the same time? And the Israelis? And staring down the Turks? It will all look just as hypocritical as it does now if the change is not comprehensive.

    But read that piece above. It is a good one.

  3. Dan, I agree that what is going on in Syria is awful, but I have to take issue with three things. The first is that moral imperative and national interest are often the same. The second is that an intervention of any kind will save thousands of lives. Finally, the idea that Syria will be “grateful” for the assistance we will provide them.

    As to the first, the idea that moral purpose and national interest coincide for American policy doesn’t mesh up to reality. In the 1990’s we intervened in Somalia, which wasn’t in our national interest and ended badly for us and the Somalis. We then failed to intervene in Rwanda, and did not intervene in any meaningful way in the Balkans until the end of the decade. In the case of the Balkans we didn’t intervene in any meaningful way until near the end of that conflict – long after the siege of Sarajevo, or the massacre at Srebrenica – and even there it did not seem that any real interest was at stake. Then during the 2000’s we stood aside while a genocide was occurring in Darfur, and as Tanner stated we don’t do anything about Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. The case of Afghanistan is more fluke than historical trend, and as Andrew Bacevich stated, September 11 was less about terrorists in Afghanistan, and more that we got sucker-punched.

    The next issue is that the no fly zone will save thousands of lives. Who will we be saving thousands of people from? Obviously, the Syrian army. However when we do this, the rebels will simply start killing the army, so the overall attrition rate will most likely stay the same, but with a more even distribution between army and rebel. The second problem is that the Syrian air force is not the primary killer of the rebels, its artillery, so in order for this idea to work, we would have to start bombing Syrian army artillery sights, which may induce mission creep as I have stated earlier. Finally, the end of the Assad regime does not mean an end to the violence, but more likely would herald a less intense, but more complicated period of civil war.

    Finally, I take issue with the idea that the Syrians would be “grateful” for our assistance. Saudi Arabia is not grateful for what we’ve done for them. The Israelis are almost entirely equipped with American weapons and we have had an extremely hard time making them do things. The Europeans – whom cannot defend themselves without us – are notorious for being ungrateful. You stated the international relations is often public relations, I tend to think the public relations is all bunk.

    Another post script. Stepping away from this issue as a military historian, or realist, but rather as a Catholic. The idea of a “humanitarian intervention” strikes me as a bit Orwellian. The idea that we will use military force, kill hundreds of people, maim thousands more, and make orphans and widows, but call it “humanitarianism” because we did it, seems odd.

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