As the fighting between the ever-weakening regime of President Bashar al-Assad and hundreds of armed opposition groups spreads and intensifies, pundits and policymakers are increasing their calls to intervene militarily in Syria’s civil war. The primary reason given for picking sides in this conflict is to protect unarmed civilians from the brutal and often indiscriminate force waged by Assad’s security forces. In tandem with this humanitarian impulse is the notion that giving weapons, intelligence, and logistics support to a select few, carefully vetted armed rebels will rapidly lead to regime change in Syria. Above all else, intervention proponents never claim that regime change will be very difficult, or require a single U.S. boot on the ground. As Paul Wolfowitz and Mark Palmer wrote last month: “No one is arguing for military intervention on the order of Afghanistan or Iraq.”
However, there are a range of other justifications that intervention proponents put forth, having nothing to do with protecting civilians or regime change in Syria. To attempt to gather support from different audiences, such proponents routinely provide a laundry list of justifications that rationalize the inherent risks and uncertain ultimate costs of military operations. For example, according to U.S. officials, the Libya intervention was necessary to repay European support for the war in Afghanistan, and send messages of resolve to other dictators, such as Assad, who it turns-out was not receptive.
Consider just three other reasons that intervention proponents have offered for invading Syria:
Syrians have especially long memories. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in a recent op-ed titled “We Will Pay a High Price if We do not Arm Syria’s Rebels”:
"Sooner or later some combination of the opposition groups will indeed control Syria. And when they do, their memories of who did what during the struggle to achieve a democratic Syria are going to matter far more to the U.S. and Europe than policy makers presently calculate…The eventual winners in Syria will matter a great deal to the health, wealth and stability of what is still the most geo-strategically important region in the world. Syrians will remember those who remember them, those who cared enough to help save their lives."
Though Slaughter does not hypothesize what the “eventual winners” will do to America if President Obama does not authorize arming them today, it is a remarkable rationale that makes several assumptions. First, that the post-Assad political leaders of Syria will be the same individuals who received U.S. weapons. According to Rep. Mike Rodgers, Chairman of the House Permanent Intelligence Committee, there are at least 300 rebel groups in Syria, a quarter of whom “may be inspired” by Al Qaeda. Second, any country not arming the Syrian rebels will be remembered for their lack of enthusiasm, and suffer the wrath of Damascus for some period of time. Third, Syria’s political leaders will closely align their policy preferences with the United States, because the Obama administration armed them—rather than say the preferences of the Qataris or Saudis, who are providing weapons to Syrian rebel groups. Senator Marco Rubio echoed this notion when he contended: “Empowering and supporting Syria’s opposition today will give us our best chance of influencing it tomorrow.”
Consider some recent history. The United States provided battlefield intelligence, money, and weapons and ammunition (up to 65,000 tons a year by 1987) to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, some of whom later became members the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Not surprisingly, once the Taliban came to power it was not willingly directed by the United States, refusing repeated requests by the Clinton administration to kick out Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda leadership. In Rwanda, the United States didn’t provide arms or intervene militarily during the genocide in 1994, yet somehow Paul Kagame’s government finds itself able to accept $200M in U.S. foreign assistance every year. Likewise, the future leaders of Syria will act in their own national interests with whoever it needs to, regardless of who is arming or funding the revolution today.
Iran. In an op-ed that represents the opinion of many intervention proponents, Danielle Pletka wrote: “Ousting Tehran’s last reliable satellite regime and replacing it with a Sunni, democratic government would reassure our friends in the region that Washington is determined to stand up to Iran when necessary.” Described more vividly by James Dobbins at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week: “There’s nothing more effective I think to put the Iranian threat in some perspective and reduce its pressure on Israel than to flip Syria.” It is doubtful that Syria’s opposition will appreciate that their revolution is used to “flip” their country’s relationship with Iran. Furthermore, to restate the point about country’s acting in their own national interests, one often repeated side-benefit of regime change in Iraq was that a non-Saddam Hussein leader in Baghdad would both cooperate closely with America and serve as a bulwark against Iran—neither happened.
A transformative moment. As a Washington lobbyist hired by the Syrian opposition to drum up support on Capitol Hill admitted: "There is a window of opportunity. What we do now will affect the region for the next 20 to 30 years." This sort of grandiose thinking echoes President George H.W. Bush who kicked-off the first Gulf War in 1991 by proclaiming “We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order.” It also reflects what many neo-conservative Bush administration officials proposed would be the tremendous spill-over gains from the shock-and-awe campaign that toppled Saddam Hussein. The costs ($810 billion and counting) and horrendous human consequences of the 2003 Gulf War should dissuade anybody that Washington can channel a revolution in Syria along a course that benefits only the interests of America and its allies in the Middle East.
The nine-month run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was a notable case of “justification fatigue,” where the intellectual arguments favoring regime change were more developed than the political-military plans to rebuild the country once Saddam fell. Whether in Syria, or elsewhere, citizens should carefully judge the merits of the many justifications offered, and decide for themselves whether it is worth the costs and consequences of intervening in another country.