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.

If Assad is indeed more secure than the conventional view suggests, then the inevitable question is whether it is time to consider more "robust" responses to the Syrian regime's outrages. Much of the commentary thus far has focused on why hypothetical interventions -- Operation Unified Protector: Syrian Edition or Lift and Strike Damascus -- would be bad ideas. Opponents of international intervention argue that the Syrian opposition has not asked for such action, but their non-consent could be changing, given what living (or not) at the mercy of the Assad regime looks like. The opponents also claim that intervention in Syria is likely to be harder than it was in Libya. On a technical level, the argument is specious. There is nothing in the Syrian arsenal that would pose an undefeatable threat to Western aircrews. That's not to suggest that undertaking military action in Syria would be a "cakewalk," but relatively recent Israeli incursions into Syrian airspace suggest that in terms of force protection, the risks are minimal. The technical issue is, however, a red herring. Analysts who reject the idea of airstrikes suggest that it could actually do more harm than good, giving Assad an excuse to kill even more people. It is a compelling argument and certainly a downside risk, but what is constraining the Syrian leadership now? Nothing. And, what is the metric that flips the cost-benefit analysis? In other words, at what point in the body count is international intervention deemed to be an acceptably worthwhile option that can have a positive effect on the situation? After Assad has killed 6,000 people? 7,000? 10, 000? 20,000?

The Democracy ReportThe other major objection to taking direct action against Assad is Iraq. There are two versions of this claim. The first indicates that the experience of Iraq was so searing and the impact on Iraq's neighbors so devastating, that the United States should not repeat the same mistakes now. But why did this claim have so little sway when it came to Libya? Post-Qaddafi Libya is far from perfect and its future is uncertain, but the intervention was nowhere near at costly or destabilizing as the 2003 Iraq invasion. Regardless, it seems that when it comes to Syria, the Obama administration has learned the lessons of Iraq. For example, in contrast to the George W. Bush administration's march to war in 2002 and 2003, Washington has worked particularly hard to be mindful of regional security concerns, particularly Turkey's, in Syria.

There are actually few analogies to the Iraq experience. Unlike Saddam at the time of the invasion, Assad is engaged in the mass killing of his own people; unlike Operation Iraqi Freedom, there is a chance that the Arab League would support a humanitarian intervention in Syria, and any military operations could be undertaken multilaterally. Getting a UN Security Council resolution would be tough given Chinese and especially Russian opposition, but without being too Rumsfeldian, does every military intervention require a UN writ? It is certainly preferable, but not a requirement.

Would Syria really be so different from Libya? This is big question that the opponents of intervention in Syria have not effectively answered. European leaders, "right to protect" advocates, members of Congress, and a bevy of foreign policy intellectuals (with a few notable exceptions) seemed willing to unleash NATO on Qaddafi on humanitarian grounds, but not on Assad. If NATO undertook a military attacks to protect Benghazi from an onslaught, what about Homs? At this point, Assad has killed more people than Qadhafi had on the eve of NATO operations. The truth is that the arguments against bombing Syria run into the Libya buzz saw no matter how often people insist that "Syria is not Libya." One of the real reasons that observers seem reluctant to consider an intervention in Syria may be because Libya took so long to bring Qaddafi down, which was the unstated but unmistakable goal of NATO's missions. It was supposed to be a matter of weeks, not seven months. Had Qaddafi fallen last April, it's easy to see how the same political pressure that contributed to Libya's intervention could have shifted to demand the same approach in Syria.

The arguments for some sort of lift-and-strike-like policy toward Syria are not without their problems. There are good reasons that contemplating yet more Western violence against yet another Muslim country can (and maybe should) bring a certain queasiness. That said, 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. If there is no intervention and political will to stop Assad's crimes remains absent, the world will once again have to answer for standing on the sidelines of a mass murder. It is also hard to ignore the possibility that bringing down Assad would advance the long-standing American goal of isolating Iran. Any post-Assad government in Damascus would not likely look to Iran for support, but instead to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. That would be a net benefit for Washington and others looking to limit Iran's influence in the Arab world.

The wild card in the bomb-Syria-for-humanitarian-reasons argument is what post-Assad Syria might actually look like. Syria has similar ethnic and sectarian complexities as Lebanon and Iraq and there is reason to believe that, in the vicissitudes of politics, these groups might seek to settle scores against one another and to gain advantage through violence. Then again, it is worth asking whether analysts are over-correcting as a result of the American experience in Iraq. Given recent history there, it certainly seems that caution is warranted, but that means leaving Syrians to their fate with a regime which seems intent on shooting and torturing its way out of its present troubles.

Syria has become a place where violence, colonial legacies, the mistakes of the recent past, and the hopes for a better Middle East have collided to create layers of complications and unsettling trade-offs for policymakers and outside observers. Yet wrapping oneself in the false comfort that Assad cannot hang on for long seems like the worst possible way to proceed. Washington and the rest of the international community must come to grips with the idea of intervention in Syria or get used to the idea that Bashar al-Assad could stick around far longer than anyone expects.