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The Perils of Piecemeal Intervention

Author: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
March 8, 2012
New York Times

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Syria's rebels are in retreat, President Bashar al-Assad's loyalist forces are laying waste to their former strongholds, and the death toll is mounting: the latest United Nations reports put it around 7,500. As the body count has increased, so, too, have calls for outside intervention. It's time for the West to step in — but only after honestly debating what it will take to stop the carnage.

Policy makers and advocacy groups have spent the past few weeks scrambling to come up with solutions. So far most of the discussion has focused on half-measures: arming the rebels or setting up opposition safe havens on Syria's borders. Proponents of these policies argue that they will stop the bloodshed while allowing the United States and its allies to avoid another full-scale intervention so soon after Libya.

The impulse to find a way to end the violence is understandable — indeed, I share it. But the debate over intervention to date has played up the benefits of piecemeal options while understating their dangers.

Partial measures may seem attractive, but they risk turning a small local conflict into a far messier regional war. Strange as it sounds, doing something small may be worse than doing nothing — meaning the West should go in big or stay home.

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