In the wake of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s failed six-point Syria peace plan and the Assad’s regime not-so-subtle admission that it possesses chemical weapons, the stakes of a Western-led military intervention have increased significantly in less than a week. A report by the Royal United Services Institute noting the possibility of chemical weapons being used or stolen, not to mention the increased capability of the opposition forces as well as the geopolitical implications of the conflict spreading to and gripping other nations, concludes that a military intervention may take place to prevent the conflict from spilling beyond Syrian borders. As the ongoing crisis continues to manifest itself in the international realm, many pro-intervention voices in academia, the media, think-tanks and policymaking circles have decided that a military intervention will be the pill that cures all that currently ails the conflict-ridden country. John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, has been making the rounds of Fox News and other right-wing press outlets decrying the administration’s response to the conflict. (In fairness, he has harangued President Obama on just about anything he has done). Sen. John McCain – and many leading Republicans in the United States Congress – went even further, calling last spring for a ground invasion to stop the bloodshed. Even on the other side of the Atlantic, where support for an invasion has received a mostly chilly reception, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has been attempting to pull together a coalition of the sceptical to support a NATO-led effort similar to the campaign waged against the Gaddafi regime in Libya.
And in many respects, it is quite easy to understand the urge among the interventionists to seek a military “solution” to a struggle which has raged on for almost 18 months now. President Bashar al-Assad has essentially flipped the bird to the international community in continuing his repressive attacks on opposition forces and civilians. The Houla massacre stands as one of the most horrendous acts of the Syrian Uprising to date, and serves as prima facie evidence that al-Assad is hell-bent on a bloody confrontation. To onlookers in the developed West, the constant newsfeeds of explosions, indiscriminate bloodshed and population displacement have particular salience, and carry with them an implication of wilful negligence, that we need to do something. Moreover, previous overtures to the Assad regime have been as efficacious as England’s post-1966 football exploits. The “Friends of Syria Group”, convened by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, has largely failed to extract any meaningful results, the defection from the Assad government notwithstanding, largely because it highlights the deep schism between the pragmatists and idealists in the international community. The U.N. General Assembly resolutions lack teeth as tougher Security Council action failed mostly due to intransigence on the part of Russia and China. The sanctions enacted by the United States and European Union have hurt the Syrian economy but have not, and will not, by themselves force the al-Assad regime out. The stalemate between regime, opposition and international community has brought nothing but carnage and further escalates the likelihood of an outside intervention.
But is this the right course of action?
Before getting onto that, it is incumbent to point out that the accusations that the United States and others have “done nothing” are misleading at best, and disingenuous at worst. The United States and European Union have indeed sought diplomatic resolutions to the uprising. It’s been an open secret in intelligence and national security circles that the Central Intelligence Agency has been co-ordinating a small-scale covert operation with intelligence services in nearby countries (Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) to supply arms to anti-regime forces in Syria. While this has obviously not reached the levels of Operation Cyclone in the 1980s against the Soviets, it is nonetheless an initiative on the part of the Obama administration to tighten the noose around President al-Assad’s neck.
Be that as it may, is arming rebel forces the most judicious way to achieve peace in Syria? For one thing, the international community largely does not have a good handle on who the “opposition” is, and this is the most basic issue to clarify before any decisions to throw a bunch of AK-47s and anti-tank weapons at anonymous rebel fighters are made. The forces opposed to the al-Assad regime are a very loose-knit composition of ethnic and sectarian groups, military defectors, grassroots activists and anti-government forces, all of whom have divergent and often paradoxical interests. Some of the multiple forces inside this “coalition” include the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (a Hamas affiliate) and the Islamic State of Iraq, a group with links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq which has been responsible for the deaths of scores of U.S. troops in Iraq. Are these some of the individuals we want to provide with sophisticated weapons? We know that arming insurgent groups with weapons has proven to be a headache for U.S. policymakers and intelligence officers, from the C.I.A’s ill-fated attempt to buy back Stinger missiles from Afghan rebels during the period of the Afghan Civil War to stories of U.S. weapons being “lost” during the Iraq War. That is because once a country is flooded with weapons, they can (and most likely will) get into the wrong hands both inside and outside of its borders. Many members of this loose network of “opposition forces” will undoubtedly share the weapons they get from Western intelligence services with their brother organizations and since armed militias have over time proven difficult to disarm, rebuilding a peaceful, post-revolutionary governing structure will prove to be a Herculean task. Afterall, militia leaders are essentially regional governors with guns and RPGs who want to keep power, and convincing them to put down the AK-47s to form a transitional government will prove tricky, as we found out in Afghanistan in the 1990s, long after the last Soviet soldier had left. The availability of sophisticated weapons, absence of an outside power (the Soviet Union) to prop up the existing government and the presence of many rival, anti-regime groups in the peripheries with different interests led to the breakdown of the Najibullah government, and subsequently gave way to a power vacuum that the Taliban ultimately filled. Is that what the United States and the international community want to spend the next decade dealing with?
Let us, for the time being, assume that arming the rebels does not do anything to dissuade Assad or bring peace (and I’m doubtful that it will), and the international community goes ahead with a military intervention. Is the idea feasible? What will be the aims and objects? To stop the bloodshed, to remove the Assad regime and install a post-Assad democratic government, or even both? Many have tried to compare the situation to the campaign waged in Libya, but the two countries share very little in common. Firstly, the Syrian military is better trained, armed and loyal to the regime than the Libyan military ever was, receiving outside help from Russia and China (something neither Iraq, Afghanistan nor Libya ever got). Also, Syria is a much smaller country without the vast land space that can serve as a hideout for rebels. Most of the population is centered around Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, which also happen to regime strongholds, meaning that a takeover by anti-regime forces will be very difficult to achieve as they have less active support than Gaddafi’s forces did in Libya. Even in the border towns of Idlib (located near the Turkish border) and Deraa (along the Jordanian border), the regime forces have expounded their crackdown, dispelling any misconceptions about its strength and willingness to defend the regime. Besides, Libya is hardly an illuminating beacon of imported democracy, as the National Transitional Council has been largely unable to stabilize the country, and the gross human rights violations that were ever present during the Gaddafi regime are still pervasive. Surely, the jury is still very much out on the verdict of Libya’s transition which would definitely take some time, but it does not look very promising at the moment.
Because the opposing forces in Syria are side by side, urban warfare is the only way to go, requiring a sizeable ground invasion and a protracted conflict that will likely involve significant casualties to both sides, not to mention the collateral damage. With governments in Europe and the United States pressing for the need to reduce government spending, the idea of yet another costly military campaign in the Middle East might be a hard sell to the viewing public, especially in the United States where the presidential elections are less than 3 months away and the public is largely lukewarm to the thought of losing American men and women to a war which has little to do with American interests. The country has been at war for more than a decade now, and has spent untold trillions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States Armed Forces in stretched to a limit, the domestic situation is hardly invigorating, with terrible infrastructures, unemployment stuck at 8.3% and the nation facing more $16 trillion (TRILLION!) in debt.
Even if the coalition should prevail in driving Assad from power, will it be able to secure from these disparate factions a commitment to power-sharing and a stable government? So far, previous case studies from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya indicate otherwise, especially in the case of Libya which has often served as a reference point for a successfully waged military campaign. If (when?) the Assad regime is driven from power, what happens next? If we have learned anything from nation-building exercises in the Middle East, it is that foreign powers cannot rectify conflicts of power struggles and national identities in ethnically fractionalised countries. Unlike the homogeneous Libya, (about 96% Sunni Muslim) Syria (like Iraq) is a much more sectarian society. It is mostly Sunni too (about 75%), but has a sizeable Allawite, Druze and Christian populace. A military intervention carries a high risk of breaking down the government institutions when the ruling regime is forced out, igniting a sectarian conflict and a completely broken down society with economic, political and social strife – essentially what happened next door in Iraq when Saddam was overthrown. In this scenario, the West will “own” Syria, and the obligation to completely rebuild the country, which would also require another costly, lengthy military occupation. After a decade (and counting) in Iraq and Afghanistan, can the United States and other Western countries embark on yet another nation-building project? Syrians do not have a unifying sense of political and national identity and there is nothing a foreign power can do to remedy that, to say nothing of the perception that the United States and its allies are merely flexing their imperialist muscles. Even if we drive Assad from power, this does not necessarily suppose that his replacement would be much better. What’s that old saying about the devil you know …?
Then there’s the issue of the national interest. As a resolute acolyte of the Waltzian school of realist IR thought, I am sympathetic to, but mostly unconvinced, by the liberal raison d’etre for a military campaign on humanitarian grounds, but especially because the United States and Europe have very little vested interests in Syria. The country has very few natural resources and is not a major trading power. The Syrian military, despite the outside assistance it has received from Russia and China, is at best a second-rate military force which poses very little threat to the West. Many have attempted to argue that a covert operation or military campaign against Syria (an Iranian ally) would be devastating to the mullahs, but that implies that the absence of a pro-Iranian Assad regime equals the presence of a pro-Western government. Admittedly, the anti-interventionist argument of “stay out of it” is a tough sell in the face of daily massacres and threats of chemical warfare, but realism is antithetical to making foreign policy choices based on moralistic, emotional reactions to international tragedies. All of the options involved in Syria are wrought with political and strategic risks, but none even more so than an outright military campaign which will do nothing but lead to a sectarian slaughterfest, social anarchy and political instability in the absence of a Syrian military and police force to keep order. As it is, it is not clear what the vital interests – if any – of the West (especially the United States) are in Syria, but an intervention strategy will most certainly be harmful to US Mid-East policy. Syria abuts Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan, and inciting a violent conflict in Syria would threaten the stability of the already-fragile region, and lead to a Sunni/Shia (and even Kurdish, as arms would most certainly make their way into Turkey) conflict which would do nothing but harm US interests in the area. At this point in US policymaking, the United States ought to favour an offshore balancing strategy in the Middle East where a military presence would be reduced, and American power and interests would be better served.
As difficult as an anti-interventionist approach may be to square with our Western ideals of human rights and justice, the Syrian uprising will be less bloody and harmful to US (and European) grand strategy if Syrians solve the conflict themselves. Getting involved in a regional war is much more difficult than getting out of it. The United States and its European allies cannot bring good governance, freedom and democracy to Syria, nor should it have to. Great powers often get themselves into trouble trying to undertake expansionist nation-building adventures, and there are very few successful examples of these endeavours to justify yet another Mid-east incursion, especially when the United States currently is engaged in a protracted conflict nearby in Central Asia. The unfortunate reality of a power-drunk dictator murdering his own people is unquestionably a cause for concern, but is hardly a justification for an open-ended, ill-planned military incursion in which the objectives are not clear and vital interests are not at stake. Fortunately, most Western leaders (including many who supported the Libya campaign) realise this, albeit begrudgingly so, and are lukewarm to the idea of marching onto Damascus to pick winners and losers in this bad-meets-evil conflict. It is better for Syrians to plot the future of their country by themselves, better for the stability of the Middle East and better for the rest of the world to help where they can, but keep their heads out of what is ultimately a domestic matter.