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Marc Lynch: ‘U.S. Military Intervention in Syria is Misguided, Dangerous’

The United States must respond urgently to address the growing bloodbath in Syria, where the asad regime has killed more than 6,000 of its own citizens and risks unleashing a sectarian war that would kill thousands and destabilize a critical region. However, the united States should not intervene with military force, which is unlikely to improve conditions in Syria and instead threatens to make them worse. Though advocates of military intervention claim it is the moral choice, it is not. Military intervention will allow americans to feel they are doing something. but unleashing even more violence without a realistic prospect of changing the regime’s behavior or improving security is neither just nor wise.

–Marc Lynch, Pressure Not War: A Pragmatic and Principled Policy Towards Syria (pdf), Center for a New American Security

It seems almost self-evident that this is the case.  But too many policymakers and analysts have been seduced by the siren call of intervention.  The main reason why the U.S. must not intervene is that we already have two interventions on our plate in Iraq and Afghanistan and the possibility of a third in Iran.  Do we really want to juggle four major military operations in the same region at the same time?  It’s simply beyond our capacity either operationally or politically.

While I agree wholeheartedly with Lynch’s statement above, I’m afraid he doesn’t offer a tangible enough program for toppling the regime:

Instead, the United States and its international partners should engage in a sustained, intense and targeted campaign of pressure against the Asad regime. This campaign should have several elements.

First, the international community should present Asad with an ultimatum: Since Asad can no longer participate in a legitimate Syrian government, he, his vice president and a limited group of top regime officials must resign or be referred to the International Criminal Court for War Crimes (ICC). Second, the international community should continue to tighten the economic and financial sanctions against the Asad regime, its senior leaders and the most senior members of the Syrian military. Third, the international community should conduct a sustained and vigorous effort to isolate the Asad regime diplomatically. Fourth, the international community should strengthen the opposition and encourage it to develop a unified political voice. Finally, the United States and its partners should support a strategic communications campaign to publicize the regime’s atrocities, shame those who continue to support the regime and encourage regime members to defect. It should also reassure the Syrian public that abandoning its support for the Asad regime will not unleash the sort of sectarian war that killed hundreds of thousands of people in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

If this is all we can offer the Syrian resistance, we have only ourselves to blame if calls by neocon interventionists like Michael Weiss for robust western military intervention resonate so strongly in the foreign policy arena.  The Arab League and Muslim nations in the region must unite to develop a plan for Syrian transition.  I have no problem if this program involves regime change as long as the regional players take the lead.  As much as possible, the west should keep out of the affair unless specific assistance is requested by players in the region.

A Libya-style NATO intervention will not work here because Syria is far too important and there are far too many conflicting interests at work.  Western intervention could work in Libya because it was not a central player either in the Arab world or even in North Africa.  With Russia, Turkey, China, Israel, the U.S., Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and others having a vested interest in the outcome, a heavy-handed external campaign of regime change in Syria would likely turn into a disaster.

Assad’s regime will not, as Israel and the U.S. claim, fall overnight or even soon.  But the longer it takes for this to happen the greater the chance that not only many thousands of Syrians will die, but the internal civil war will attract outside actors seeking to instigate trouble or worse.  Deadly bombings claimed by Al Qaeda show the danger that could develop.  We have more time than warmongers like Weiss would have us believe, but we have less time than Lynch offers.

The only assistance the west can offer is moral.  But this is not a minor role.  We should encourage Turkey and the Arab League to develop a robust, carefully thought out plan for intervention that minimizes long term, or heavy-handed actions and allows Syria to govern its own affairs as quickly as possible.  When they implement their plan we should support it in any way we can and any way requested by the interested parties.

It is possible that Turkey would not agree to intervene or that if it did, that the intervention would turn much bloodier than anticipated.  But I believe that if those who intervene are neighboring Arab-Muslim nations, that things will go much smoother and less violently than otherwise.  While Syria has a viable military force, I don’t believe it would continue significant resistance for the sake of its patrons and paymasters when facing the superior force of a power like Turkey and the combined Arab world.

One of the attractions of regional action is that it would bypass international bodies like the Security Council, where the Syria regime maintains allies like Russia and China who’ve stymied serious efforts to make Assad pay a price for his crimes.  If international action cannot work, then regional action can.

Unlike in Iraq, we should not criminalize Baathists or Alawites who served or supported the regime.  We should amputate the top leaders and allow the nation to develop alternative political structures and leadership.  Arab League peacekeepers should maintain the peace but try to stay out of internal politics.

Finally, I’m amused by the hypocritical moral indignation expressed by Israeli hasbarists who cry out about blood flowing through the streets of Homs when they anticipate doing roughly the same thing to Iran with an Israeli attack.  Not to mention what they’re already doing on a daily basis to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  When Israel can renounce its own aggressive military posture toward its neighbors, then Israeli hawks can wax indignant about the moral depravities of neighboring Arab states like Syria.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Strelnikov February 27, 2012, 1:27 AM

    I think the aftermath of the Libyan intervention is a good enough case for non-intervention: militias that won’t disarm, a transitional government lost in space, racial killings. Syria has a good chance of becoming another Lebanon, and the US needs to stay out.

  • yankel February 27, 2012, 3:07 AM

    It’s hard to tell what’s the best course to be taken. There’s probably no perfect, drawbacks-free solution.

    One thing is clear, though: letting events resolve themselves means letting Assad’s butchery continue till the opposition, its suspected sympathisers, their immediate families, extended families, neighbours and fellow townspeople are all dead or tortured beyond recognition.

    Choosing – for political expediency – to let this massacre go on while having the means to stop it is morally repugnant.

    An island of relative sanity, Turkey, the local former imperial power and current democratic power-broker seems to be the obvious force at hand that should be reckoned with.

    • Strelnikov February 27, 2012, 6:38 PM

      I did not say I was for the butchery; I am for Mr. Silverstein’s Turkish/Arab League plan. What I’m well-aware of are the possibility of unintended consequences, and I see all sorts of problems if the US gets involved. By the way, I am aware that Al-Qaeda of Iraq fighters are allegedly inside Syria now, probably fighting both the government and any Free Syrian Army groups “not Islamic enough.” Even that is not worth getting involved.

  • Bob Mann February 27, 2012, 3:52 AM

    You wrote that you were amused by the “hypocritical moral indignation” of those who speak out against the violence in Syria but support the Israeli line.

    I do think it is worth mentioning that the scale of what is going on in Syria is significantly greater than anything that is or has been going on in the Occupied Territories.

    To wit, there have been more people killed by the Syrian regime in the last ten months than Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the last twenty-five years.

    • Deïr Yassin February 27, 2012, 4:49 AM

      Wow, you’re just repeating the new hasbara-line, aren’t you ?
      There is absolutely no comparison between the two situations: on the one side, we have a population who has been expelled, dispossessed and mistreated on their own land for the last 64 years – without major outcry from “international moral authorities” – by a state largely financed by the West and whose continued colonization is even facilitated by tax-reduction (in the US and France at least), and on the other hand we have the Syrian people – or a part of it – who is rising against their own dictators, but how incredible it might seem to you – and to me – Assad and the regime still have support among not only Alawites but also Christians who fear a new Iraq. Do you know how many Iraqi Christian refugees are living in Syria ?

      And yes, it is extreme hypocrisy to see for example a Bernard-Henri Levi – who has never criticized the Israeli occupation in the OT, who went into Gaza on an Israeli tank during Cast Lead, who was one of the instigators behind the intervention in Libya, completely marginalizing the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé, who later at the local CRIF-dinner party (the French AIPAC) claimed that he acted as a French but first of all as a Jew and for the sake of Israel – organizing a conference in Paris for the Syrian opposition. Fortunately, when long-time opponents of the Assad-regime found out who was behind the conference, they refused the invitation. The actual leader of the CNT, Burhan Ghalioun, even wrote an op-ed in “Le Monde” with two other Syrians in exile asking BHL to keep his nose out of Syrian affairs ! The list of such people is long, and how come they mostly have close ties to Israel ?

    • Richard Silverstein February 27, 2012, 1:21 PM

      Is that supposed to justify Israel’s killings & land thefts & Occupation? Do you always make moral judgments on relative scales?

      • Bob Mann February 28, 2012, 3:15 AM

        I only mentioned it because you brought up the subject. One thing does not justify the other or anything like that. I just think it ought to be acceptable for people to express their outrage or concern about what is going on in Syria even if they are pro-Israel or pro-America or what have you. The one ought not to exclude the other necessarily.

  • Deïr Yassin February 27, 2012, 4:08 AM

    “The Arab League and the muslim nations in the region must unite to develop a plan for Syrian transition”

    The socalled “Friends of Syria” met last week in Tunis. There’s a lot of information on the net – from articles claiming it’s another conspiration to positve reactions.

  • Matt Graber February 27, 2012, 5:29 AM

    “The main reason why the U.S. must not intervene is that we already have two interventions on our plate in Iraq and Afghanistan and the possibility of a third in Iran”

    Any military intervention in Syria is the beginning of the war with Iran. Iran and Hesbollah would certainly strike back if there were US, Israeli, or NATO troops on the ground in Syria.

    Another dangerous game that the US is playing is with the Syrian National Council. The SNC is based in the US, and the Syrian people have little representation with this body.

    The case of Syria, I think, is a test of popular movements in the world. Are people serious about the Arab Spring, the Syrian Revolution, and Occupy Wall Street. Do we want to have a people-based movement that rejects militarism as a means to addressing conflicts and as a means to having legitimacy as a government? Syria presents a case where our policy-makers will not resolve things, and will only make things worse.

    • mary February 28, 2012, 6:44 AM

      The main reason the US should not intervene is that its policy of military aggression must end. Its hegemonic ideology is what created the situation in the first place; all those payoffs to Arab leaders to preserve the status quo, and the happiness of Israel, are causing huge blowback, with the potential for catastrophe.

      I am hoping the Arab League grows a pair and steps up to the plate, and deals with this horror. If it does not, or cannot, what the hell is their ostensible reason for existing if not to serve their American master?

  • marc b. February 27, 2012, 5:47 AM

    “Western intervention could work in Libya because it was not a central player either in the Arab world or even in North Africa.”

    huh? could you define ‘work’ in this context? if by ‘work’ you mean, kill the head of state, this, i suppose, could be done easily enough to asad. without making any excuses for the degenerate asad, he is simply the secular incarnation of the degenerate saudi royal family, one the prime backers of the SNC. does anyone think that the investment of saudi arabia and qatar is motivated by concern for democracy and the lives of common syrians? this whole scene smells like libya, or even more so, like the intentional break up of the yugoslav republic.

  • Fred Plester February 27, 2012, 9:08 AM

    Given the history of Turkey as the former (and remarkably oppressive) colonial power, any intervention had better be led, and seen to be lead, by the Arab League.

    The Saudis seem to be impatient for this. All sorts of cynic’s explanations for this, but I’d be inclined to think that Assad turns their stomachs as he turns everyone else’s.

    In Libya, UK Special Forces were allowed to advise, but not arm or equip, the rebels. Since they were always accompanied by Qatari soldiers with truckloads of free equipment, this was not the handicap it might have been.

    I suspect that the solution will take the form of Jordanians offering advice and Qataris bearing gifts. Assuming that the Saudis don’t lose patience and simply put in an airstrike aimed at Assad in person, which is well within their resources, assuming the IDF will hold its nerve if Saudi Tornados head West.

    Putin’s support for Assad’s intensive shelling of Homs is easily explained: he’s not a hypocrite and that’s precisely what he advised the Kremlin to do to Grozny when he was still boss of the FSB/KGB.

    • Fred Plester February 27, 2012, 9:13 AM

      Or, indeed, if Saudi Tornados head sort of Northish. Now I know how the Americans got the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.