Stay Out of Syria
Foreign intervention to topple Bashar al-Assad's bloody regime risks a fiasco on par with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Let’s be clear: Washington is pursuing regime change by civil war in Syria. The United States, Europe, and the Gulf states want regime change, so they are starving the regime in Damascus and feeding the opposition. They have sanctioned Syria to a fare-thee-well and are busy shoveling money and helping arms supplied by the Gulf get to the rebels. This will change the balance of power in favor of the revolution. It is also the most the United States can and should do.
President Barack Obama does not want to intervene directly in Syria for obvious reasons, and he is right to be cautious. The United States has failed at nation-building twice before in the Middle East. The Libyan example of limited intervention by using air power alone could suck the United States into a protracted and open-ended engagement. One cannot compare Libya to Syria. The former is a relatively small, homogeneous, and wealthy society. Syria has a population four times larger, which is poor and wracked by an increasingly violent civil war across religious lines. Moreover, the chance that the United States can end the killing in Syria by airpower alone is small.
The argument that the United States could have avoided radicalization and civil war in Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein in 1991 is unconvincing. Similar arguments are now being offered to talk Americans into jumping into Syria. Iraq was not a mature nation-state and was likely to fall apart. The fact that it imploded into civil war when the United States roto-rootered Saddam’s regime should have been expected.
U.S. intervention in Syria will likely lead to something similar: civil war and radicalization. Syrians have never agreed on basic questions of identity and policy, and it is unlikely that they will decide these issues peacefully today.
With America’s economy in the dumps, its military badly bruised, its reputation among Muslims in tatters, and its people fatigued by foreign wars, this is no time to intervene in Syria. Washington has no staying power if things go wrong. It wants regime-change on the cheap — to bomb and withdraw. And if things go wrong, will we leave the Syrians in the lurch or get sucked into another complicated quagmire? The administration can ill afford to leave a failed state behind in Syria or to have it unfurl into civil war.
Even more pressing will be the need for post-conflict reconstruction. Syria is a nation the size of Iraq whose population has outstripped its water and economic resources. Unlike Iraq, it has insufficient sources of revenue to quickly rebuild its infrastructure. What if there is massive looting and chaos? Syria produces little the world wants to buy. It hardly produces enough electricity for three hours of power a day. The school system is in a shambles. Do Americans want to pay for putting Syria back together? More to the point, should they let Washington start what it would not finish?
If anyone tells you they are going to build democracy in Syria, don’t buy it. Democracy is unlikely to succeed there anytime soon. The two social indicators that predict the success of democratization with any accuracy are median population age and per capita gross domestic product. According to a recent study, autocracies with a median population age of over 30 years old are most likely to transition to liberal democracies — Syria has a median age of 21. This is the same as Iraq’s and just slightly older than Gaza’s and Yemen’s. Because of its poverty and youth, political scientists give it small chances of becoming democratic and stable any time soon. Beware of drinking the democratization Kool-Aid.
Anyone who believes that Syria will avoid the excesses of Iraq — where the military, government ministries, and Baath Party were dissolved and criminalized — is dreaming. Syrian government institutions and the security forces will fall apart once the revolution prevails. They are overwhelmingly staffed by Baathists, Alawites, and other minorities, recruited for loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad — no revolutionary government will keep them on. Their dismissal will provide fodder for a counterinsurgency, promoting greater chaos across the country.
Syria’s new rulers will also face a daunting set of challenges upon taking power. They will be obliged to employ the hundreds of thousands of jobless Syrians who have sacrificed for the revolution, lost family, and struggled in the face of tyranny.
If the United States becomes militarily involved — destroying the presidential palace in Damascus and military installations — it will own Syria. Will it discipline the dozens of militias that have sprung up to represent the revolutionary forces? If the death toll rises after the Assad regime is taken out, will the United States continue to dedicate itself to stopping the killing?
Syrian opposition figures have estimated that running the government for the first six months after the fall of Assad will cost $12 billion, and have made it clear that they will ask international donors for financial support. This is chicken feed. Anyone who knows anything about Syria knows that it will take a lot more than $12 billion to stabilize and rebuild the country. The United States currently spends $12 billion dollars every three months in Afghanistan. In 2010, the United States was spending $6.7 billion in Afghanistan every month, as well as $5.5 billion in Iraq. Few Americans believe this money was well spent. It is rash to expect Syria to cost less.
If the United States has learned anything, it is that it cannot sort out issues of power-sharing and national identity for Middle Eastern countries. The road to national unity does not go through Washington. In the end, Syrians must find their own way and choose their own national leaders. Ahmad Chalabi and Hamid Karzai turned out to be bad choices for Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.
There is no indication that the United States could do a better job of picking winners in Syria. Burhan Ghalioun, the original leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), seemed to have all the qualities of a future Syrian president, but his own party members attacked him for treason within months of confirming him as leader. He was forced to resign on May 17, setting the stage for a showdown between the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its political rivals over who will be the SNC’s new leader. Militias, the names of which we don’t even know and with ideologies that could turn out to be closer to Osama bin Laden’s than George Washington’s, are competing on the ground for cash and Kalashnikovs.
Syrians are divided because they have no tradition of unity and the Baathists have destroyed politics for a half-century. Nothing the United States can do will erase that legacy of political underdevelopment.
It seems heartless to stand by and do so little as massacres, such as the atrocity carried out at Houla, continue. More than 13,000 Syrians have been killed in the last 14 months of revolution. But there is no reason to believe U.S. intervention can staunch the violence. American troops killed over 10,000 Iraqis in the first month of invasion in 2003. A further 100,000 Iraqis were killed by the time they left — and even now, Iraq remains in turmoil and a new dictatorship seems to be taking shape. Car bombs are a regular occurrence in Baghdad, and the government cleaves to Iran rather than the United States.
The cost in Iraq was high. The chances that the United States would end the killing by destroying Syria’s Baathist regime is not good.
In all likelihood, the Syrian revolution will be less bloody if Syrians carry it out for themselves. A new generation of national leaders will emerge from the struggle. They will not emerge with any legitimacy if America hands them Syria on a golden platter. How will they claim that they won the struggle for dignity, freedom, and democracy? America cannot give these things. Syrians must take them.
The United States can play a role with aid, arms, and intelligence — but it cannot and should not try to decide Syria’s future and determine the victors of this conflict. If Syrians want to own Syria in the future, they must take charge of their revolution and figure out how to win it. It is better for Syria, and it is better for America.