Marc Lynch

No military option in Syria

It is time to think seriously about intervening militarily in Syria, argues Steven Cook today. He joins a small but growing chorus pushing for such a move. Some parts of the Syrian opposition have moved toward requesting an intervention, albeit with serious reservations and furious internal disagreements, as has the Emir of Qatar and some ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It is time to think seriously about intervening militarily in Syria, argues Steven Cook today. He joins a small but growing chorus pushing for such a move. Some parts of the Syrian opposition have moved toward requesting an intervention, albeit with serious reservations and furious internal disagreements, as has the Emir of Qatar and some other Arab officials. And then of course, there are those who have been pushing for hawkish policies toward Syria for years who have seized the moment to push for action, and others who generally support military solutions. This is the kind of temporary coalition which can drive real policy shifts.  

It is easy to understand the urgency behind such a call. The brutality of the Syrian regime has produced unspeakable atrocities which challenge the conscience of the world. The daily death toll, and the horrific videos and images which circulate freely, can easily make the passions overwhelm the interests and push us to set prudence aside. I supported the intervention in Libya, and believe strongly in the importance of advancing regional and global norms against regime violence. 

But the U.S. should not be contemplating military intervention in Syria. Risky, costly foreign policy decisions can not simply be taken to express moral outrage. They need to have a serious chance of success. None of the military options currently under discussion have a reasonable chance of improving the situation at an acceptable cost, and their failure would likely pave the way to something far worse. 

Syria is not Libya, and has few of the unique conditions which made that intervention appropriate. The moral outrage at the depradations of Assad’s forces, as well as the fevered hopes of those hoping to change the region’s strategic equation by bringing down Iran’s main Arab ally are not enough, any more than hope is a plan. Military intervention in Syria has little prospect of success, a high risk of disastrous failure,  and a near-certainty of escalation which should make the experience of Iraq weigh extremely heavily on anyone contemplating such an intervention. There is no magic number of deaths at which the U.S. must embark on a self-defeating and foolish adventure. 

If Syria really did resemble Libya, then the argument for a similar intervention under the mantle of the Responsibility to Protect would be stronger. But it doesn’t. The Syrian opposition is far weaker, more divided, and does not control any territory. There are no front lines dividing the forces which can be separated by air power, no tanks and personnel carriers conveniently driving along empty desert roads to be targeted from the sky. The killing in Syria is being done in densely populated urban environments. There is no UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. The geography and sectarian landscape are different, as is the regional environment and the risk of spillover into nervous neighbors such as Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. 

A no-fly zone (NFZ), the most commonly requested intervention, is almost completely irrelevant to Syrian realities. The Syrian regime is not using helicopters or fixed-wing airplanes to carry out its crackdown. Controlling Syrian airspace alone would do little to affect its ability to act. Syrian anti-aircraft capabilities may be old and unintimidating, but when the U.S. acts militarily it will not take any chances of losing an aircraft. Establishing a NFZ would require significant preliminary bombing of Syrian anti-aircraft capabilities, which would be well-primed for the engagement and would not be taken by surprise as they were by the Israeli strike a few years back. Many Syrian anti-aircraft capabilities are located in or near urban areas, which raises the risk of significant civilian casualties. And, of course, the airspace over Syria — between Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Iran — is among the most politically sensitive areas in the world.  

A NFZ would almost immediately escalate to the more aggressive "No Drive Zone" which hawks urged in Libya when that conflict stalled. This expanded use of airpower, rather than the more limited operational details of a NFZ, are what should be debated before moving down that path. This would entail large scale bombing and aerial action against ill-defined targets in urban environments with extremely limited human intelligence or information on the ground. The fact that most of the killing is being done in densely packed urban areas makes any effort to intervene primarily through air power, as in Libya, extremely problematic. A No Fly Zone in Syria is not a cheap alternative to war – it is war, and one which would quickly become messy. 

Some therefore advocate directly using U.S. and allied air power to strike against Assad regime targets. For some, this seems to be purely punitive, an expression of moral outrage or punishment. Without a UN mandate, this would of course be illegal. It would also be the classic example of something which would feel good momentarily and then create a world of new problems. Some expect that the Assad regime is highly brittle and would quickly crumble in the face of a show of military might, as the regime loses morale and protestors surge forward. Such "shock and awe" offensives, aside from lacking legality and risking significant civilian casualties, have an extremely poor track record in the real world. The Gaddafi regime did not crumble on first strike, under far better conditions for NATO and the opposition. If the Syrian regime does not fold immediately, then once again the U.S. would be faced with the demand to escalate.  

The Syrian National Council has recently explored the idea of the establishment of a Safe Area to protect refugees and to create a Syrian version of Benghazi where the opposition could establish and build an alternative government. In reality, this would entail carving out a part of Syria from the sovereign control of the state and providing the military means to defend it. Declaring it simply in principle would set up the nightmare scenarios of Srebrencia in the Bosnian war, in which the international community proved unable to protect the civilians under its umbrella. 

If Srebrenica is the worst-case, the experience of the relatively successful Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq after 1991 should prove equally sobering. An operation which was envisioned as a short term response to crisis, on the expectation of Saddam Hussein’s imminent fall, instead turned into a decade-long commitment. Maintaining that safe area required some 20,000 troops, near-constant air-raids, and an increasingly contentious international debate at the UN which consumed the Clinton Administration’s international diplomacy — and, in 1996, did not prevent one Kurdish leader from inviting Saddam’s troops in to help settle internal political scores. 

A Safe Area might allow the Syrian opposition in exile to organize, but it would not be a Benghazi where an alternative leadership formed through the indigenous efforts of a militarily and politically successful opposition. It would more likely resemble the Iraqi National Congress in the 1990s, which established a presence in the Kurdish areas for the largely unrepresentative and ineffectual opposition in exile. That consumed a great deal of external support, but never proved capable of winning broader support. Creating a Safe Area would require a significant and direct investment of troops and resources, clearly violate Syrian sovereignty, and likely set up a long-term commitment. There is little reason to believe that such a Safe Area would hasten Assad’s collapse, or even to expect it to be useful for the humanitarian mission of protecting Syrian lives. It would be concrete, visible evidence of the foreign conspiracy to divide Syria about which Assad already speaks.   

If none of these indirect forms of intervention hold out hope for success, what then is left? On the one hand, direct intervention. It is all too easy to imagine the failure of indirect intervention creating a drumbeat for military forces to directly engage Syrian regime forces, not because anyone wanted that but because of the logic of escalation and reputation. And then we will be right back to the Pottery Barn rule, the urgent pressure to deal with the post-regime situation, and the kind of disastrous occupation which eight years in Iraq should have made unthinkable. If repeating the Iraqi disaster in Syria is what advocates of intervention would like to propose, then that should be the terms of the debate. 

Military intervention in Syria to stop the killing appeals to the soul but does not make sense.  That doesn’t mean ignoring the slaughter. The United States and its allies must indeed do more to support the Syrian opposition forces. It should work to achieve a UN Security Council mandate for comprehensive international sanctions against Damascus, and continue to work with its regional allies to build bilateral and regional pressure. Now that Michael McFaul has finally been confirmed as ambassador to Russia, and the Arab League mission has largely failed, the U.S. can hopefully make more progress in shaping a strong Security Council resolution. The U.S. and its allies should push International Criminal Court indictments and hold the regime accountable for its crimes. More ways could be found to help build the nascent Syrian opposition, and to engage with and support the groups emerging on the ground as opposed to the exile groups. More could be done to plan for a post-Assad future and to communicate to terrified Syrians sitting on the fence that they have a place in that new Syria. I am in the middle of drafting a report offering more concrete proposals along these lines.

I have my doubts about whether the Syrian regime is truly crumbling, as so many claim, but I do believe that the Syrian regime is destroying itself through its repression, losing political support and control over much of the country. The U.S. needs to hasten those processes, not insert itself in the middle with military action which can not hope to succeed.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark