The Situation in Syria Provides an Unwelcome Setting For Intervention

The complexity of Syria's civil war makes a successful intervention unlikely.


The European Union lifted its embargo earlier this week on sending weapons to Syria, thereby allowing its members to send arms to Assad's opposition, who have been facing a renewed assault from government forces. Shortly after the EU announced its decision, the Russian government confirmed that it would be sending the Assad regime anti-aircraft missiles, news that was not received well in Israel, whose defense minister said that Russian shipments to Syria (and possibly the pro-Assad Hezbollah) could be targets of Israeli strikes. Assad recently told a Hezbollah-owned TV station that the missiles had arrived. 

To put it bluntly, a messy situation is being made much messier by intervention. And the U.S. hasn't even gotten involved. That could soon change. A bill authorizing the Obama administration to send weapons to "vetted" rebels recently passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and, in the wake of unconfirmed reports that either Assad or the rebels used chemical weapons, and thus crossed a U.S.-established "red line," a bipartisan coalition is calling for intervention—if only to show Iran that when the U.S. establishes a red line, there are real consequences for crossing it. 

Needless to say, there are also real consequences to wading into a complex civil war. The diplomatic, geopolitical, ethnic, and security considerations are vast and discouraging.  

Diplomatically, some of the most significant barriers to intervention have been the Assad regime's relationships with Iran and Russia. More direct involvement in Syria could possibly derail negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and could wreak havoc on America's ever-delicate relationship with Russia. While Assad alone does not pose much of a diplomatic threat, backing the rebels over the ruling regime would worsen America's already precarious relationships with Russia and Iran.

Another diplomatic matter to consider is that past interventions have been carried out in cooperation with international bodies. The intervention in Libya was done through the United Nations and NATO, whose leadership ruled out intervention in Syria back in March. Without the backing of an international body (the E.U., U.N., NATO etc.) any government that wants to send weapons to Assad's regime or intervene directly will could have its reputation tarnished and must be prepared to deal with the potential negative consequences. While the E.U. sanctions on sending arms to Syria may have been lifted, this is not the same thing as saying the E.U. backs member countries sending arms to Syria. 

In addition to incurring diplomatic risks, intervention in Syria also could lead to further geopolitical destablization. Every one of Syria's neighbors has been affected by the civil war, be it by having to accommodate refugees or by having to deal with the conflict's overspill. The conflict has the potential to impact even more countries in the region, particularly by broadening the launch pad for jihadists who are abetting the rebels. 

Nevertheless, interventionists are full of good ideas about how to "help" Syrians. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has argued that selective airstrikes like those used during the intervention in Libya could be used against the Assad regime. Elizabeth O'Bagy, political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, and Gen. Salim Idriss, leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, have asked for a no-fly zone to be put in place, another strategy that was implemented in Libya.

Would these tactics help bring down the Assad regime? Probably. That leaves America in the impossible position of predicting what Al Qaeda-backed rebels would do to the Syrian goverment, let alone Syrians who are members of religious minorities. The most prominent member of Congress to express these concerns is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), but he can't stop an intervention all by himself. 

By itself, the complexity of the situation is not an argument against intervention. Yet, considering the questionable success of interventions in places like Libya, which appeared to all the world to be a much simpler operation, it's up to interventionists to sell the rest of us on yet another war. How exactly, will they separate the good rebels from the bad ones? How, exactly, will they keep the bad rebels from access stockpiles of Assad regime weaponry? What are the conditions of victory? If the rebels do route Assad, do we stick around and help them rebuild? If so, for how long? 

Lastly: Why should we? 


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  2. “If the rebels do route Assad, do we stick around and help them rebuild?”
    Route him to where, exactly?

  3. If the Syrians really have S300’s setup (and crews who can use them) it will take either unorthodox Israeli trickery or American A-list assets (B2’s, F-22’s) to secure Syrian airspace from those weapons. That always puts a damper on political adventurism, just as Assad ambiguously confirmed. Between that development and Hezbollah getting into the mess, the rebels will slowly run out of time unless Europeans can get their own junk into rebel hands quickly.

    The Turks are the wildcard in the whole thing, just like they’ve always been in the region since proto-Ottoman days. A terrifically bad situation inviting Western suckers into the maw for sure. Since Obama only goes for sure things bomb-wise (Osama aside), I think we’ll blessedly stay out of Syria – unless somebody else jumps the gun(s) first, since we lead from behind and all.

  4. This argument assumes that intervention must necessarily include an effort to control who takes over. Why should it? Were the U.S. to make a habit of killing off the head of state of Third World cesspits that supply terrorist who attack us, doing so would rapidly fall out of fashion.Yes, it would upset the Transnational Cosmopolitan nitwits who object to nearly everything we do anyway. Is this really a downside?

    1. “intervention must necessarily include an effort to control who takes over. Why should it?”

      That’s a very interesting point, C.S.P. Schofield. I’m pretty sure that every other nation intervening in Syrian affairs has an interest in who comes out on top in the end. You seem to be saying, ‘to hell with that, let’s just intervene for intervention’s sake.’

      And then you go on to wring your hands over the USA being the target of terrorist attacks. Utterly bizarre. If there’s any sense here, I missed it. Maybe you should try to present your, let’s be generous, ‘argument’ once again, with clarity.

      1. No, I’m not saying “let’s just intervene for intervention’s sake.” I’m saying that if we made it a steady policy that any nation that harbored or supported Terrorists would shortly lose its head of state, the various tinpot dictators would have a strong incentive to clean out any nests of camel-pesterers that seemed inclined to target the United States.

        Now, this isn’t going to happen. But the reason it isn’t going to happen is that we are too mush-,indeed to say to the world “You can hate us all you want to, but if you attack us life is going to be seriously unpleasant. Briefly.”, and then follow through. Not because it wouldn’t work.

        I’m not even suggesting that it would necessarily be a good thing for us, or for the world, if we were the sort of State that could do that. But I get weary of the whole spectrum of “Violence never solves anything” arguments. There is precious little historical evidence to support that faith.

        1. That’s “mush-headed”. And I can’t even blame autocorrect. At least I don’t think I can.

        2. The only Terrorist group I’m aware of that Syria harbours is Hezbollah, a Shia militia based in Southern Lebanon. They have never launched terror operations against the USA. Hezbollah or their forerunners chased out the USA marines back in the Reagan administration, but since then they have not targetted Americans.

          Terror attacks from foreigners are pretty rare. After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan there has not been a single Taliban terror attack on American soil. And those few attacks that have occurred have not been perpetrated by people living under regimes like Syria which maintain a foreign policy independent of the USA, but from regimes like Pakistan and Yemen – strategic allies, I think they are called. So killing their leaders is hardly likely.

  5. People who use violence usually respond well when violence is used against them. It is sad but true that usually the only way to resolve conflicts like this is to somewhat “beat them into submission”. Other countries who are not violent respond well to other methods.

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