Debating Western Intervention in Syria

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Marc Lynch responds to Steven A. Cook's Atlantic article arguing that the U.S. should consider military action

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Protesters in Marat al-Numan carry the body of a killed fellow demonstrator / Reuters

Should the U.S. intervene in Syria? No, writes Marc Lynch, who is director of George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies, on his blog at Foreign Policy. In a post titled "No military option in Syria," Lynch responds to an article at TheAtlantic.com by Steven A. Cook that argues it's time to think seriously about intervening in Syria.

Cook stops short of advocating intervention but writes that foreign policy thinkers must drop their misguided assumption that Bashar al-Assad will fall on his own. "If the international community wants to see the end of the Assad regime, as virtually everyone claims, then it is likely going to require outside intervention. Nothing that anyone has thrown at Damascus has altered its behavior and the current arguments against intervention do not hold up under scrutiny," he writes.

Lynch's dissent argues that, terrible though the Assad regime may be, any military action would cause more harm than good.

I supported the intervention in Libya, and believe strongly in the importance of advancing regional and global norms against regime violence.

But the U.S. should not be contemplating military intervention in Syria. Risky, costly foreign policy decisions can not simply be taken to express moral outrage. They need to have a serious chance of success. None of the military options currently under discussion have a reasonable chance of improving the situation at an acceptable cost, and their failure would likely pave the way to something far worse.

As the Assad regime continues to kill dozens of civilians every day in a crackdown that shows no signs of slowing, despite Western condemnation and sanctions, there is a growing debate over whether or not the U.S. should use military force. But it is impossible to discuss any potential intervention without considering the legacy and lessons of the disastrous Iraq war and the 2002-2003 run-up to the invasion, when what now appears to have been over-optimism by foreign policy elites encouraged public support for a war that turned out to be far costlier.

Still, though it is never advisable to forget the lessons of history, it is also possible to over-learn them, and the more successful (so far) 2011 intervention in Libya would seem to provide an important counter-point. But the complicated war in Iraq, and its omnipresent intellectual legacy within the U.S. foreign policy community, has so far made the debate over intervening in Syria as much an argument about the terms of that debate as it is about Syria itself. If Libya was a moment of catharsis for U.S. foreign policy (as well as, of course, a far more important event for Libyans themselves) then Syria may be a moment of finally addressing the ghosts of Iraq and deciding how that war will guide -- or constrain -- American foreign policy.

Two other arguments come from Marwan Daoudy at Jadaliyya, who is against it, and Nick Cohen at The Guardian, who is for it. Also read Michael Weiss in Foreign Affairs on what an intervention would take and Anne-Marie Slaughter at TheAtlantic.com on peaceful ways to intervene. Also read Micah Zenko's many thoughtful articles on the meaning and practice of international intervention.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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