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.

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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.

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."

Marc Lynch responded to Cook, "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." Lynch has it broadly right. Shadi Hamid's response to both Cook and Lynch, of being torn between both positions, encapsulates the dilemma faced by policymakers. But Hamid is mistaken to invoke a "moral responsibility" to help Syrian protestors, many of them armed and now stoking civil war. Moral impulse is not always a basis for a winning strategy. It is also premature to declare Libya a success. Armed militias must still be disarmed, the central government is yet to be recognized by the country's all-important tribes, and an increasingly violent Salafi contingent has yet to be contained.

Nevertheless, the intervention in Libya has set a precedent and emboldened Syrian protestors. If Qaddafi can fall, the thinking goes, so can Assad. If the West supported armed rebels in Libya, the thinking goes, so it must in Syria. Even granting that NATO's intervention in Libya was wise, intervening in one country does not necessitate involvement elsewhere: we have a duty to judge each country on a case by case basis. Where next after involvement in Syria? The Economist reports unrest spreading in China. If there were to be mass protests in China next year, would the U.S. lead a bombing campaign on Beijing? Moral arguments in foreign policy only work if these are in line with U.S. interests. It was Lord Palmerston, and then George Washington, who said nations do not have friends, they only have interests.

The U.S. foreign policy community needs some of the wisdom Maliki mentioned. Maimonides, the great Torah scholar, wrote about obligatory and optional wars. Richard Haass modernized this demarcation for our times by defining "wars of choice" versus "wars of necessity."  A "war of necessity" involves self-defense, important national interests, and exhaustion of all other options in defense of the first two categories. A "war of choice" is usually pressing the military button when our stakes or interests are less clearly "vital," and when other alternatives, be they diplomacy, inaction, or something else, still exist.

In the case of Syria, advocates of intervention would move us toward a classic "war of choice" option. My colleague Robert Danin highlights at least eight other policy measures that could be adopted without pursuing military action. Diplomacy and sanctions have not been exhausted in Syria. Assad is destroying himself -- we do not need the scalp of another Saddam or a Qaddafi.

Just as the United States draws down in Afghanistan, and withdraws from Iraq, another war in the Middle East would not be wise. The Egyptian military saved itself by amputating a part of itself, getting rid of Mubarak; the Syrian regime may well dispense of Assad but preserve the Ba'athist state (as Hillary Clinton suggested in her statement to the UN on Tuesday). It may not. This is a juncture at which to rebuild and renew the United States, not be consumed by the civil war of a complex nation. Syrians will decide their own fate.  When the British said to Gandhi that without their involvement, India would be in chaos, Gandhi retorted "At least it will be our chaos."