It's Time to Think Seriously About Intervening in Syria

The conventional wisdom in Washington and beyond is that Bashar al-Assad will fall on his own and that an intervention would be counterproductive, but with thousands dying we need to reconsider those assumptions

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A Syrian protester faces security forces near Homs / Reuters

The most stunning thing about how American foreign policy experts and elites talk about Syria today is the one aspect of the country's crisis that they won't discuss. There is little to no actual debate about direct international intervention into an uprising and crackdown that has cost more than 5,000 Syrian lives. In response to the Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against largely peaceful protesters, which leaves dozens of people dead every day, the international community has denounced Damascus "in the strongest possible terms," as diplomats like to say, placed the country and its leadership under sanction, and searched for additional punitive measures short of the use of force. Oddly, at the same time that the United States, Europe, and the Arab League have apparently rejected meeting Bashar al-Assad's violence with violence, there is an assumption in Washington that it is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime falls. It is largely a self-serving hunch that does not necessarily conform to what is actually happening in Syria, but nevertheless provides cover for doing nothing to protect people who are at the mercy of a government intent on using brutality to re-establish its authority. After all, if the many Syrians who have been in open revolt since March of last year are on the verge of bringing down Assad, then, as the conventional wisdom has it, there is no need for a international response and thus no need for an agonizing debate about whether to use force in Syria. But this logic seems less convincing every day, and it might be time to reconsider our assumptions about intervention.

Despite the now prevailing belief in policy circles that it's only a matter of time until Assad falls, events in Syria suggest otherwise. Since last March, thousands upon thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets, initially to demand reform and now the end of the Assad regime, which they clearly regard as unredeemable. Syrians have been willing to face down a fearsome army and security forces that were created, trained, and equipped not for war with Israel but for repression. The economic power of the United States, European Union, and Turkey (The European Union and Turkey had previously accounted for almost 30 percent of Syria's trade) have applied what was hoped would be crippling sanctions on Assad. There is evidence that these measures have created a range of problems for Syria, including spikes in food and energy prices. Still, sanctions have failed to modify the regime's approach to the uprising. Indeed, the Syrian leadership has long shown that it is more than willing to force its people to suffer in order to ensure the regime's survival.

Syrians are persisting in the face of regime violence and there have been defections from the armed forces. Yet only a small number of officers and recruits have switched sides: the anti-regime Free Syrian Army apparently numbers only a few hundred. Unlike in Tunisia or Egypt during the revolutions there, it seems that Syria's military officers still believe that sticking with Assad best serves their interests. Even the recent terrorist attacks in Damascus, against high-value targets such as the State Security Directorate and the Kfar Sousa district military office, do not appear to have not altered the regime's strategy. Indeed, Assad vowed to use an iron fist against the perpetrators of the attacks, which the opposition believes was actually committed by the regime seeking an excuse -- as if it needed one -- to use force against the uprising.

It's true that Assad is more isolated than ever, but to what effect? The Turks, who, over the course of the last decade, tried to convince the world that the Syrian leader could be flipped through engagement and trade, have given up on him. Even the Arab League, long a club for dictators, suspended Syria's membership. It was one thing when the organization kicked out Qaddafi's Libya, but quite another to take similar action against the country that is "the beating heart" of the Arab world, as Syria is sometimes known. Despite the international opprobrium heaped upon Damascus and efforts to isolate the regime, Assad continues to have options. Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, and Hizballah all remain committed to their relationships with Damascus.

Ultimately, it seems that Assad still has bullets left, people to resupply him when his stocks run low, and loyal officers to fire them. What more does he really need? Under what circumstances is Assad's fall "only a matter of when and not if," as the foreign policy comminity seems to have decided? The Syrian leader may, in fact, be under pressure, but he also clearly believes that he has time. In his speech to the Syrian people on January 10, he gave no hint that he believes he has a political problem on his hands. That may be posturing for public and international consumption, but unlike earlier speeches Assad did not even bother to promise hollow reforms. He has gone all in, apparently believing that he can continue to kill people with relative impunity. Current international efforts are exacting a toll, but it is clear that Assad and his associates -- his family, actually -- are willing pay a much higher price for their survival.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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