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It's Time to Think Seriously About Intervening in Syria

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
January 17, 2012


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.

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