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.