The US Mustn't Intervene in Syria

The brutality of Syria’s civil war and Iran's influence in the region have motivated calls for foreign intervention since the conflict’s beginning. Reports of massacres, torture, and the use of illegal weapons has prompted some to call for the U.S to intervene in Syria and stop the bloodshed. To date at least 40,000 Syrians have died and hundreds of thousands more are refugees in bordering countries such as Jordan and Turkey.

Despite fierce international condemnation Assad’s regime shows few signs of peacefully surrendering or working towards some sort of political transition. In light of the military and diplomatic deadlock some are arguing for Western military intervention. Citing geopolitical and humanitarian concerns some say that the time has come for American troops to engage in Syria on behalf of the rebels. However, this is something that U.S. officials should avoid.   

The situation in Syria is worrying aside from its brutality. Syria is a close ally to Iran, which has been supporting the regime throughout the conflict. Although Syria is a majority Sunni country, Assad is an Alawite Shiite, and the regime has enjoyed support from the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, which in turn receives support from Iran. 

It is true that were the Assad regime to fall then Iran would lose a key ally. Having Syria on the Mediterranean coast makes it valuable to Iran. James P. Rubin cited Iran's influence as a key reason for intervening in Syria in Foreign Policy back in June:

Libya was an easier case. But other than the laudable result of saving many thousands of Libyan civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, it had no long-lasting consequences for the region. Syria is harder -- but success there would be a transformative event for the Middle East. Not only would another ruthless dictator succumb to mass popular opposition, but Iran would no longer have a Mediterranean foothold from which to threaten Israel and destabilize the region.

Without Assad’s regime Iran would have difficultly maintaining the material support Hezbollah and Palestinian jihadists have grown accustomed to, but the difficulties would be temporary. It is almost certain that Iran would find some way to continue supporting terrorist groups without Syria. There is no way of knowing that a Western intervention would not create instability in the Middle East that Iran could exploit. Daniel Larison made a similar point back in March:

Sectarian warfare in Syria could indeed hamstring Iran's ability to project power, but it isn't going to end Iran's patronage for Hezbollah. Iran's loss of Syria as an ally would be a significant setback, but it would likely also come at a great cost to the U.S. and friendly governments in the region. Stoking conflict in Syria would destabilize all of Syria's neighbors, three of which are U.S. allies or clients, potentially contributing to new sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon. It could also result in the establishment of a less predictable Syrian regime that is no less hostile to Western interests. It makes little sense to risk the stability and security of those states on the assumption that whatever is bad for Iran must be good for us. 

While we might not like the fact that Iran supplies unpleasant actors in the region there is not way to predict how these established channels could change with an occupying force in Syria. It is also worth considering that the Iranian regime might welcome American targets closer to home. 

Syria is neither Libya nor Iraq, and offers a very complicated theatre of war that the U.S. would do well to avoid. With over 20 million people and a wide range of ethnic and religious groups, Syria is too large and diverse a country for a foreign occupation to work. 

If any lesson is to be learned from the mess in Iraq it is that native demographic tensions can be close to impossible to contain and control. This is especially worth considering after one reflects on the fact that it is far from obvious that a Western intervention would be welcomed as a liberating force by most Syrians.

An occupying military force would not only have to establish relationships with Syrians, but also fight Assad’s loyal military and secure chemical weapons. The Syrian army is comparatively better equipped than its neighbors', and by the U.S. military’s own calculations securing chemical weapons in Syria would require more than 75,000 troops.

Perhaps the most compelling case for intervention in Syria is the brutality being inflicted on innocent people. Tens of thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled. No one doubts that the Syrian conflict has created a humanitarian crisis. What remains in doubt is if the misery being inflicted on the Syrian people would be alleviated by foreign intervention.

Assad’s opposition is a wide-ranging group, composed of constituent factions with many different motivations. Among those fighting Assad are Al Qaeda-linked militants who hope to establish an Islamist state in a post-Assad Syria. This goal seems safely at odds with many of Assad’s other opponents.

Were Assad to step down there is no predicting what mess could possibly ensue. As our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the presence of U.S. troops hardly ensures peace and stability.

Those advocating for intervention in Syria purely out of humanitarian concerns need to argue why Syria is their target of choice and not any other murderous regime. Why not intervene in North Korea, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, or any other of the Earth’s oppressive regimes?

There is little evidence that a foreign intervention in Syria would permanently disrupt Iran's influence in the Middle East, and the humanitarian case for intervention fails to address what makes Syrians more worthy of assistance than other oppressed people.

Having boots on the ground is of course not the only military option. The U.S. could impose a no-fly zone over Syria, similar to the one imposed over Libya. However, even these interventions, although being limited, can have unintended consequences

As usual, non-intervention would be the best policy for the U.S. to pursue. 

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  • R C Dean||

    That pic of the belt-fed rifle makes me wonder:

    Does DiFi's new definition of assault rifle include belt-fed models, or just models that take magazines?

  • John||

    LOL. Wouldn't that be hysterical if they forgot to include that? It wouldn't surprise me if they didn't.

  • Randian||

    I do have to say that I definitely feel a lot better about the possibility of any sort of gun control passing. I feel that moment passed us by already.

  • Randian||

    Fun idea for an editorial cartoon: An image of Adam Lanza shooting a guy labelled "NRA".

    Who gets offended? Everyone or no one?

  • John||

    I am actually surprised someone hasn't written that. And yeah the NRA and gun rights people would have a fit.

  • Randian||

    OK, but what if the caption is "Justified By Liberals" or something like that?

  • John||

    The caption would be

    "Lanza in Liberal land"

  • Cytotoxic||

    John and Randian all other political cartoonists.

  • Randian||

    There's a winner right there.

  • tarran||

    Does DiFi's new definition of assault rifle include belt-fed models, or just models that take magazines?

    "People of Earth, Shhhhhh!"

  • John||

    The Syrian army is comparatively better equipped than its neighbors', and by the U.S. military’s own calculations securing chemical weapons in Syria would require more than 75,000 troops.

    If the Syrians want to settle old scores and kill each other, I wish them luck. If two sides are determined enough, letting the two sides settle scores until they get tired of dying is the only available solution to a problem. But isn't securing the chemical weapons a pretty good idea? I could not care less if the Syrians want to have a civil war. But I do care if some nut releases saran gas he got in Syria in the New York subway.

  • tarran||

    But I do care if some nut releases saran gas he got in Syria in the New York subway.

    Given the sides that are already involved in the conflict, any Sarin gas that the rebels get will probably end up in a Russian subway.

    The Russians have a naval base, a brutal attitude, and self interest in not letting things spiral out of control. Let them hold on to that tar baby.

  • John||

    Probably. And that is why we ought to be able to get Russia and Turkey and Europe to bear the heavy lifting on this. They are in more danger than we are. Of course that would require actual diplomacy. And real diplomacy seems above the Kenyan Village Idiot's pay grade.

  • tarran||

    Honestly, I think the Russians are paying attention already - their only naval base in the med is threatened by this revolt.

    The Russians ain't stupid. They're quite capable of power projection (think their surprise take-over of that international airport in Kosovo in the 90's to prevent it from falling into U.S. hands after the UN authorized outside intervention). They've successfully fought numerous proxy wars in the past, and I doubt they've forgotten how in the past decade or so.

    The notion that Putin needs Obama's guiding hand to do something in the Russian state's interests is very puzzling to me.

  • John||

    Outside of the caucuses, I have never seen Putin much care about Islamic terrorism.

  • Aresen||

    The caucuses are 3 years away.

    Give him time to think about it.

  • John||

    I would think crushing the Iranian, an historic enemy, would be in the Russian's interests. But they seem to have no interest in keeping Iran from getting nukes. So I am not sure they would on their own care if Islamic radicals got a hold of nerve gas.

  • Cytotoxic||

    The Russians ain't stupid.

    LOLWUT? The entire Syrian Revolution has been marked by solid DERP from Putin. He could've told Assad it's over we've got a nice place at the Black Sea and made nice with a new Syrian regime. Maybe sent some more 'developement aid' and that base would be secure. Now, millions of Syrians HATE Russia.

    Putin also derped the caucuses. Chechnya and its neighbours have been in low-grade civil war for years. It's not getting better. Russia's 'victorious' war against Georgia spurred billions of dollars of capital to the exits.

  • Restoras||

    If they use the chemical weapons on each other they won't be available for use on others. Just sayin'.

  • John||

    True. But there doesn't have to be much left over to cause us or Turkey or someone else a big problem.

  • John||

    Stoking conflict in Syria would destabilize all of Syria's neighbors,

    Maybe Reason missed it, but there has been a civil war going on there for going on a year. I don't think the conflict needs stoking.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    But it is always a good idea not to pour gas on a fire. Unfortunately, some people still need reminded now and again not to do so. And this is Obama we're talking about.

  • John||

    I don't see how you could make it any worse than it is. It is a full on civil war. You could intervene, wipe out one or both sides and end it. But you are not going to make it worse than what it is.

  • Randian||

    How about risking American lives? That seems worse to me.

  • John||

    From our perspective yes. But from the Syrian perspective, a civil war is pretty much as bad as it gets short of salting the earth.

  • ||

    But from the Syrian perspective, a civil war is pretty much as bad as it gets short of salting the earth.

    There is no "Syrian perspective". Some people -- those who run the government -- think a civil war is a bad thing, and everyone should just knuckle under to whatever the government does to them. Those fighting on the other side would beg to differ.

  • John||

    No. Those fighting on the other side think a civil war is much worse than said war ending with them in charge.

  • Brett L||

    Taliban v. Northern Alliance, did we make it better, worse, or indifferent?

  • Randian||

    Taking over the country renders "it" sort of a moot point. That's a total paradigm shift.

    Naturally, I (and I think Reason as well) am concerned that a takeover would be inevitable once the United States got involved. It's what we do: we have to be able to control the situation. That's what saves American lives, and the best way to do that is to control territory.

  • John||

    The problem is once you get involved, you have to pick a side. And once you do that you are stuck there until your side wins out. I think we maybe should intervene to secure the chemical weapons. That is a problem. But the civil war is not our problem. It is their problem. Bad things happen.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    I think we maybe should intervene to secure the chemical weapons.

    How would you do that? Isn't that an admission that you have picked a side, as only one side (I assume) has them?

  • John||

    It would be a tough mission. And actually, I don't know that you would be picking a side, since you would go in and kill anyone who got between you and the weapons. And you would leave after you had secured them. Ultimately, you would have to give the people who have them a reason to give them up. And that would be hard.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    And actually, I don't know that you would be picking a side, since you would go in and kill anyone who got between you and the weapons. And you would leave after you had secured them.

    John, take a look at who we are talking about here. When has the US gov ever just gone in, secured something and left? Grenada & Panama are the only ones in my lifetime that I can remember.

  • John||

    We seem to have left Libya, provided you don't count that ambassador they left to die there.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    I don't think you can equate a drone war in Libya with going in to secure WMDs. Also, what did we secure in Libya, other than a dead ambassador?

  • John||

    A dead Kadafi and not much else.

  • R C Dean||

    We don't need to secure the chemical weapons. That sounds like a job for the Russians, who I am sure are quite capable of doing a thorough job of it, seeing as they've been hip-deep in the program all along.

    I'm open to ideas as to how we might incentivize them, though.

  • John||

    Those weapons are just as or more likely to be used in Russia as the United States. Same goes for Turkey. I think a Turkish Russian coalition supported by US air power would do the job. And it would certainly take all of the fun out of things for anyone who got in the way.

  • tarran||

    Actually, the Turkish air force will probably not need U.S. support.

    IIRC, the way Nato handled the whole Greek vs Turk nastiness was to give the Greeks a lovely Navy, and the Turks a lovely air force.

    And Turkish pilots are psycho enough to fly in some pretty hostile environments (IIRC Turks used to routinely win the Nato bombing competitions until the other countries changed the rules to require the bombs to be released sufficiently far from the targets to have time to arm themselves - no more releasing the dummy ordinance at 10 meters altitude FTW!)

  • Cytotoxic||

    Turkey and Russia are NOT going to be working together anytime soon.

  • John||

    We made it better. I would rather be there now than be living under the Taliban. And to the extent that we haven't made it better, it is because we haven't been ruthless enough or had the political ability to wipe out one side.

    Regardless, we didn't and should not have invaded Afghanistan to make it better.

  • Randian||

    Bush Doctrine on this point was adopted about a month after the invasion, so while you're technically correct (and that's the best kind of correct!), I think that our mission changed fast enough you could forgive somebody for thinking it was the mission in the first place.

  • John||

    YEah. And the irony is, after 8 years of screaming and stomping about the "fierce moral imperative" to end the war, the Democrats adopted the Bush doctrine wholesale. What was the Libyan war if not the implementation of the Bush Doctrine?

  • Hyperion||

    Doesn't matter what you would rather be living under, John, you don't have to live there.

    We can't be choosing what other people want, we need to let them work that out for themselves. This entire idea of us saving the world and spreading democracy has not worked out very well since Korea.

  • John||

    That is true Hperion. But when who you choose to live under attacks the United States like the Taliban did on 9-11, that choice is no longer an option for you.

  • Hyperion||

    I think we made our point. You attack the US and we will come and kick the shit out of you.

    That's the point we need to go back to defense, instead of creating more Talibans by drone bombing people and occupying their lands.

    I'm pretty much a Paulbot when it comes to this. The old guy is right on this one.

  • tarran||

    The Taliban did not attack the U.S. on 9/11. A coalition of Saudi and Egyptian terrorists did.

    The Taliban were allied with that coalition because it provided them with a battalion of dependable fighters and financial support in the war with the Iranian backed Northern Alliance.

    The conflation of Al Queda with the Taliban is one of the bits of sloppy thinking that got the U.S. govt mired in some nasty quicksand.

  • John||

    No Tarran,

    I am not conflating anything. The Taliban allowed a group of people to operate on their soil and attack the US and then refused to turn them over or do anything to stop their activity. Therefore, by international law, the Taliban attacked the US. The UNSC resolution authorizing the use of force says as much.

    You are engaging in sloppy thinking in thinking that just because Al Queda was not one in the same with the Taliban, that the Taliban didn't legally attack the US. It did.

  • tarran||

    By that token, the United States, by shielding certain Nazi war criminals from prosecution, is guilty of conducting the Holocaust.

    Also, why isn't Germany also guilty? Atta's cell planned their attacks while studying/on the dole in Germany. The German state was giving those guys rent and food money.

    And, the Germans also won't turn people over to the U.S. because their constitution forbids extradition in death penalty cases!

    Maybe we should occupy them too! Oh wait, we already are? Carry on then.

  • John||

    By that token, the United States, by shielding certain Nazi war criminals from prosecution, is guilty of conducting the Holocaust.

    No. That is not the same logic. You are talking post facto. If the US had sheltered Nazis and allowed them to plan and carry out the holocaust from our soil, yes we would have been responsible for it.

    Also, why isn't Germany also guilty?

    Because Germany didn't actively support and allow the planning. You are not responsible for crimes committed on your territory you don't know about. It is only when you allow it to happen that you become responsible.

    And, the Germans also won't turn people over to the U.S. because their constitution forbids extradition in death penalty cases!

    But they punish them and don't allow them to plan attacks against the United States. Nothing says you have to extradite, only not let it happen. Had the Taliban rounded up and hung Al Quada or locked them all up, we would have had a much weaker case for war.

  • Cytotoxic||

    There is no distortion or lie the peaceniks won't tell to justify their religion. Tarran's is one of the more depraved.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Indeed, since it's pretty clear what they want.

    The further away we stay, the better.

  • John||

    I don't think they are going to stay away from us. If they want a caliphate and weapons, they will use those weapons on us and probably anyone else not part of the caliphate.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    That's true, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it until that said Caliphate has a blue-water navy.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    The further away we stay, the better.

    Damn straight.

  • Hyperion||

    Indeed, since it's pretty clear what they want.

    The further away we stay, the better.

    That about sums it up, if the truth is what we are looking for.

  • John||

    Why wait around for them to attack us? Fuck them. If their plan is to attack us, kill them before they get the chance. If they don't like that, perhaps they should think again about wanting to attack us.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    You're making the error that they approach this rationally. They want nothing more to be killed in battle so they can meet their 72 houri and 15 young boys as "white as pearls." And as long as we respond to their provocations with violence, it will encourage them to provoke us more for the chance at martyrdom.

  • John||

    You're making the error that they approach this rationally. They want nothing more to be killed in battle so they can meet their 72 houri and 15 young boys as "white as pearls." And as long as we respond to their provocations with violence, it will encourage them to provoke us more for the chance at martyrdom.

    And allowing them to attack us won't encourage them?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Who said anything about allowing them to attack? Defense doesn't always require a preemptive strike.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Um. They can't attack us if they're dead. If they want death, we deliver!

  • Cytotoxic||

    Better.

  • Hyperion||

    Of course we need to intervene. We must hasten the creation of yet another Islamist state in the middle east.

    By the time my Chinese burqua factory gets up to full production, I'll be rolling in the sales. I might even buy another truck load of child slave laborers and finally be able to get my monocle and walking stick, diamond encrusted.

  • ||

    Reports of massacres, torture, and the use of illegal weapons has prompted some to call for the U.S to intervene in Syria

    A government saying some weapons should be illegal is, IMO, a good (though not necessarily sufficient) reason to throw a revolution.

  • ChrisO||

    Not our problem.

  • Aresen||

    Exactly. MYOB remains the best foreign policy.

    However, I still look forward to Bashir Assad's forthcoming appearance as a lamp post decoration.

  • PapayaSF||

    Hypothetical: The US figures out where Assad is hiding, sends a B-2 overhead one night, and Assad is killed in a "mysterious explosion." Better or worse for Syria? For the US?

    (I'll grant that the political fallout might be overall negative for the US if it were discovered that we'd done it, but I'm particularly interested in what people think of the scenario in which it could be kept secret.)

  • R C Dean||

    Makes no diff. As soon as Assad is out of the way (which is inevitable, whether dead, exiled, or holed up in an Alawite enclave), the real civil war begins, the Hobbesian war of all against all.

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