We Intervene in Syria at Our Peril

Western military involvement would worsen violence, not end it, and could spread the conflict beyond Syria's borders.

Syria Feb1 P.jpg

Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attend a rally in Damascus / Reuters

I was living in Syria the last time that the world was talking about President Bashar al-Assad's imminent demise. With neighboring Iraq's Saddam Hussein (a Ba'ath party leader, like Assad) overthrown, many of my students at the University of Damascus anticipated that soon we could remove the portraits of Assad from our classrooms. For encouraging dissent, I was monitored by the dreaded secret service, the mukhabarat. During my two-year stay in Syria, I was detained at airports and threatened with deportation if I did not stop calling for democracy. I was branded a CIA agent by regime-loyalist students who objected to my patronage of a student debate society in Damascus -- an early attempt to encourage young people to think freely.

I supported the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, but I also learned from the many mistakes that followed. Much like Iraq under Saddam, the ruling Ba'ath party in Syria controls almost every aspect of public life: business, military, media, police, education, and even religious institutions. Regime change in Syria would be bloody and protracted. I still maintain frequent contact with friends in Syria, and visited the country regularly until late 2010. When friends in Washington, DC, such as Steven Cook present the U.S. with a false choice of intervening militarily or seeing Assad stay in office longer, as he did in a recent article on this site, I worry.

What happens in Syria does not stay in Syria.

For me, any Western military involvement in Syria, invariably led by the USA, would have to satisfy two tests. First, would military intervention make matters better in Syria and in the region?  Second, during these crippling economic times, is it in the United States' national interest to lead an assault on Syria?

What happens in Syria does not stay in Syria. The country's people and religious denominations are deeply interwoven with those of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Just as Lebanon became a proxy battleground for Israel and Syria between 1982 and 1990, and gave birth to Hezbollah to eject Israel from Lebanon, U.S. military intervention in Syria would likely see traditional state actors backing rival groups (Sunnis and Muslim Brotherhood by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for example, Shia and Alawites by Iran, Druze and Christians by France, a former colonial master, or even indirectly Israel). Worse, there is a real possibility of the emergence of an al-Qaeda-inspired organization inside Syria to fight "Western imperialism," much like al-Qaeda or the "Sunni insurgency" in Iraq. Syria has already been a home to jihadists, passing through to Iraq. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabist clerics -- who have been linked at least in ideology to extremist fighters -- have repeatedly prayed at Friday sermons for Syria's regime to end. As in Iraq or Pakistan, al-Qaeda's foot soldiers rarely discriminate between U.S. soldiers and Shia Muslims or other religious minorities. After the terrorism of Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda, do we want to help fuel the grievances and grudges of Muslim radicals and help produce another terror franchise in the region?

Pursuing military options in Syria are an act of war. Assad has not been shy in using force against his own people; he, or his ally Iran, will not be timid in sending rockets into Israel to retaliate against military hostilities from the West. Syria's mufti, the de facto arbiter of religious power in Syria, has openly declared his willingness to dispatch suicide bombers into Western cities. Assad has spoken of setting the region on fire. Just as we take Ahmedinajad's threats seriously, so we must recognize the weight behind the words of Syria's tyrants. What is currently at best a civil war inside Syria, with Western intervention risks spreading to neighboring countries. Where there is overspill, there will be mission creep. Intervention would become occupation.

An attack on Syria would have a destabilizing effect on a politically unstable Lebanon, force Iran to consolidate its power openly in Baghdad, and give Iraqi Sunnis the potential of Sunni support from Syria to rise against Baghdad. Moreover, Saudi and Turkish influences in Syria would be strengthened through the Muslim Brotherhood and help create greater uncertainty on Israel's borders. At best, we are being asked to support anti-American protestors who are as disagreeable toward U.S. policy in Israel, as is Assad. The idea that a new regime in Damascus would be any friendlier toward Israel or the U.S., or any more hostile toward Iran, is folly. These popular sentiments in the region forced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to refuse to join Obama's call for Assad to resign. Standing in the White House, he said "We know our neighbors and we respond with wisdom."

Presented by

Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of The Islamist. He blogs at The Arab Street.

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