from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Syria and the Question of Intervention

September 16, 2015

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My friend, Timothy Kaldas, offers this provocative post on the conflict in Syria.  He raises a host of issues that many people have been struggling with since the civil war began.  I hope readers find it interesting and useful.

With the growing visibility of the refugee crisis spilling into Europe, people are revisiting demands that the “root causes” of the crisis be addressed. This is an entirely reasonable proposition, even if it is, at times, deployed to shirk the immediate responsibility of states to provide asylum to refugees. While some have called for reinvigorating seemingly hopeless diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in Syria, others are looking to escalate military involvement. Leon Wieselter recently complained in The Atlantic, “This is what the world looks like when the United States has abandoned its faith in its power and its duty to do good. For whom are we any longer a source of hope? The rubble of Palmyra is a melancholy emblem of the rubble of American foreign policy.”

That was Wieselter’s conclusion. One may be compelled to ask what it was that he proposed leading up to it. Nothing. The text was a series of romantic laments of destroyed past civilizational greatness, but offered no coherent policy. In many respects this is representative of the more aggressive interventionist discourse in Washington. There are shrill and romantic demands for action and laments of America’s passing greatness with no detailed plan on how that action should be shaped. In the end, Wieselter and others would like to roll the dice and engage in yet another military venture to prove that America still has “faith in its power.”

Faith in power however has had dire consequences in the Middle East. If one is to turn back the clock on the question of “root causes,” that person would find that blind faith in power helped get us to the point where refugees are drowning en masse in the Mediterranean. Two of the three largest groups of refugees entering Europe today are from countries the United States had occupied until recently, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State was initially formed by the fortuitous meeting of jihadis and Baathist ex-officers sitting in American prisons in Iraq. Those officers were angered over the Bush administration’s disastrous decision to disband, in its entirety, the Iraqi military, leaving roughly half a million military-trained unemployed men in Iraq. That the consequences were fatal should hardly be surprising.

Retired General David Petraeus has advocated backing less committed members of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra—a similar strategy to the one undertaken in Afghanistan in the 1980s that resulted in terrible consequences. He argues that Jabhat al-Nusra likely has “opportunistic” members who could be lured from the group, but the risks of blowback remain real. After all, determining who is an al-Qaeda ideologue versus an opportunist would be virtually impossible. Indeed, the very proposal speaks to what a failure the American war on terrorism has been: Fourteen years since the war’s beginning, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency is suggesting we arm former members of the terrorist group the war initially sought to destroy in the hopes they can defeat an even more horrifying group that has emerged, in part, as a result of our previous military actions in the region.

Some, including myself, are prepared to support a less involved intervention such as establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. Creating a no-fly zone to protect Syrians from the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs—potentially giving rebels a secure area from which to operate—is a strategy that has its limits. A safe zone will not topple Assad nor will it destroy the Islamic State. It should also be understood that a no-fly zone is, in effect, an act of war in spite of some treating it as a more minor intervention. That said, it may well be worthwhile as a humanitarian measure. The question remains, however, what happens if it proves inadequate? The risk of mission creep is real, and once we have deployed on the scale necessary for enforcing a no-fly zone—or “safe zone” as it has been described—will the United States and its allies be tempted to expand their operation or will they show restraint? There’s no doubt that once the zone is established some hawks will immediately work to expand the mission and America’s role in the conflict.

The case of Libya also demonstrated other challenges to limited interventions. There, allied air power helped bring about the demise of former President Muammar al-Qaddafi and his regime. While I supported the intervention and welcomed Qaddafi’s fall, the aftermath of the intervention has been an unmitigated disaster in which a wide array of factions battle for territory and power while cynical international patrons back their respective militias. In many respects this is already the situation in Syria. However, an ill-planned intervention invites a continuation of such a state of affairs. Any proposed action must be multilateral and include a commitment to long-term follow-ups that works to avoid the chaos that has consumed Libya since Qaddafi’s fall. Leaving Syria to continue with an array of militia controlled havens battling for advantage does not resolve the crisis and will not lead to an end of the stream of refugees escaping the country.

I am not prepared to reject the possibility that military efforts could help save the people of Syria, however any discussion of a military option must begin by answering one question: How will this be different? What specific changes in the strategy will mitigate the disastrous consequences of the invasion of Iraq or the air strikes in Libya so as to prevent continuing the cycle of violence that has contributed to the destabilization of the region and the displacement of tens of millions of people? Failure to begin by answering this question means forming a plan that will deliver the same tragic failures we have become all too familiar with.

Perhaps the reason these questions do not get answered is because many of the hawks today are the same as those from 2002 and 2003 and they have still refused to concede they were mistaken in supporting the invasion of Iraq. If no mistake was made, then there is no need for a correction. Many of them prefer to insist that we just did not stay in Iraq long enough; they do fail, however, to explain how long “long enough” is and what Iraq would realistically look like when long enough had passed.

So I challenge advocates of intervention in Syria to provide a coherent proposal that clearly addresses how to avoid the pitfalls of past interventions. Specifically:

  • How would any intervening military force deal with the array of rebel factions?
  • Would they seek the removal of Assad and what would they do with the rest of Syria’s Baath leadership?
  • If they seek to disband the Baath party and censure its leaders, how will they prevent the militant groups we witnessed in Iraq rising to destabilize the new government?
  • If they leave the Baath leadership in the new government, how will they get the opposition and rebel groups to agree to this?
  • How will they diffuse the sectarian tensions that have exploded in over four years of conflict?
  • How will they prevent a government of revenge from taking hold, much like the one led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari and later Nouri al-Maliki, alienating a large section of the population who will then sympathize with anti-government rebel groups?
  • How will occupying forces deal with the massive number of arms that have flooded Syria? Will they ask all parties to disarm? How will they get them to comply?
  • Who will be allowed to decide which rebel groups are allowed into government which are beyond the pale? The occupiers or the Syrians and which Syrians? How? Any proposed criteria?
  • Who will finance the operation?
  • What will be the role of Iran, Russia and the Gulf states? What will discourage them from using proxies to push their respective agendas in Syria?

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a starting place for the questions that need to be answered. Security analysis should not be reduced to recycling failed ideas and arguing that people who disagree are cowards. Being senselessly trigger-happy is not courage. It is selfish folly. It is selfish because those who advocate these unstudied interventions are often the least likely to pay the price of their failures.

Finally, it is worth noting that even if, on paper, we develop a seemingly brilliant intervention strategy, it will be only as good as the people entrusted with implementing it, and undoubtedly an array of other problems will arise that we did not anticipate. Let us start with discussing the problems we are aware of.

So for the advocates of intervention, be it directly or through proxies we arm and train: Kindly offer a realistic proposal that answers these questions so that we can begin to have a serious debate about what is the best course of action.

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