Reality Check

How Not to Intervene in Syria

After everything that's happened over the last decade, shouldn’t we know a quagmire when we see one?

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

In 20-plus years of government service, I saw more than a few reruns of the same movie, particularly when we faced a really tough challenge. "Give me some options!", "Yes, Mr./Madam Secretary. We’ll get a memo to you shortly."

Most of the time, the movie ended more or less the same way. The options that might work involved serious political and strategic risks, the others cost much less but wouldn’t work quickly — or more likely, at all. And so followed the much-caricatured but very real three-option memo: (1) do everything (2) do nothing (3) muddle through as best you can.

And so we muddle. The Syrian uprising is a blood-soaked tragedy playing out on a big stage, in full view of the international community. A brutal, repressive regime willfully and indiscriminately kills its own people in a desperate — and so far successful — effort to stay in power. It encourages and looses upon the land sectarian hatreds and resentments that play out in a fury of murder, kidnappings, and torture.

The fecklessness and powerlessness of the United States, and the international community writ large, only becomes more evident as the horrors mount. We have seen an Arab League observer mission that actually legitimizes the regime, a "Friends of Syria" group that highlights the division rather than the consensus in the international community, a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian regime that only showcases the absence of tougher Security Council action because the Russians and Chinese won’t play along, repeated (and empty calls) for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal, and sanctions that hurt but can’t topple the regime. We have also seen the so-far unsubstantiated hope that in some way, all of these pressures will combine to create circumstances for the proverbial inside job, in which some Alawi military commander — worried about his own skin and a war crimes prosecution, or perhaps even in an enlightened moment about the future of his country — somehow challenges the regime with armor in the streets of Damascus and takes out the Assads.

But muddle through we must. The takeaway from any honest and unforgiving analysis of Syria produces a series of options that range from bad to worse. So we continue to play at the margins. We can’t significantly ease the humanitarian crisis, unify the opposition, and stop the killing — let alone get rid of the Assads.

Syria has always been different. The minority character of the regime, with its mix of profound insecurity and grandiosity as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, separates it from all the other Arabs. In the late 1990s, during debates about whether to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Syrian negotiations, I recall telling Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Assad the elder was the Frank Sinatra of the peace process: He wouldn’t make his peace with Israel and the West like Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, or even Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had done before him — he’d do it his own way. And as a consequence, the process and substance of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal on the Golan Heights would be different than the others, and much harder. Albright got it; I’m not sure anyone else did.

The rise of the Assads, and their view of Israel and America, was unique — and the arc of their demise is likely to be as well. A year in, the uprisings in the Arab world have offered up three pathways for regime change, none of them appropriate to Syria.

First, the Egyptian model: Let’s call it the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. Here, the military eases Hosni Mubarak out because it refuses to use massive repression and violence against the people and undermine its own power, perks, and influence in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Second, the Yemeni model: Outside forces with influence and access — the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with American help — ease a wily but weakened President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, with promises of immunity and perhaps some future role.

Third, the Libyan model: The international community, empowered by a Security Council resolution and the military muscle of NATO, wage limited war in support of a Libyan opposition that manages (eight months later) to defeat Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Syria really is different than these three. Unlike with the Egyptian military, the Alawis who dominate Syria’s military and security services are borrowing a page from our own revolutionary founders: "We’re either going to hang together, or hang separately." And the regime will continue to use whatever force is required to protect itself and its corporate interests.

Unlike Yemen, there’s no GCC fix for Syria and no immunity for Assad’s bloody hands. And Syria, unlike Libya, has real defenses — chemical weapons, a credible air-defense system, and a real military determined, as its bloody takeover of Homs suggests, to do anything to stay in power — that will make NATO think twice before launching a war. A Security Council resolution, with NATO as its enforcement arm, seems unlikely as long as the Russians and Chinese won’t cooperate. The United States has the power to crush the Syrian military, but there’s no will or stomach to deal with the risks and consequences of a sustained intervention — not yet, anyway.

These challenges haven’t stopped a fair number of experts, former practitioners, and leading U.S. senators from urging that old college try. As was the case before the Libyan intervention, calls for stronger measures have come from both liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. Whoever doubted that foreign-policy crises — like politics — make strange bedfellows?

Those suggestions include, among other things, arming the Syrian opposition and setting up "no-kill zones," an idea I still have not been able to understand either in terms of its design or purpose. I do see the implications of such an approach, though: an open-ended, ill-advised slide to deeper military involvement without any rigorous calculations of the costs. Others have urged a comprehensive strategy of indirect intervention, which includes training the opposition and the supply of arms, such as mortars, anti-tank weapons, and improvised explosive devices. Inaction, these interventionists point out, also has its costs.

Indeed it does. Syria isn’t Libya: It’s a more important place, the consequences of sustained sectarian conflict are more severe, and the advantages — weakening Iran — much greater. (Bring down the Assads, and you can undermine the mullahcracy in Tehran too.)

But then, actions that aren’t properly thought through also have consequences, for precisely the same reason. Syria isn’t Libya: The circumstances and conditions that made intervention succeed in one case aren’t now present in the other, and may never be. Great powers behave inconsistently, sometimes hypocritically. Their power and size have given them that luxury and latitude — it’s part of their job description.

I think we get it — President Barack Obama’s administration certainly does — that there really are no good options on this one. Taking out the headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division or the Republican Guard barracks with missile strikes would certainly feel good, and it’s clear that Syria’s killers deserves that and much more.

But without sticking our heads in the sand, we ought not to lose them either with reckless ideas of how to make the Syrian tragedy ours as well through direct military intervention or indirectly supplying weapons. That the Arabs — notably the Saudis — see the region through the frightening filter of a Sunni-Shia war doesn’t mean we should too. In fact, without infantilizing the Arabs and imposing on them the prejudice of low expectations, one can only wonder why key Arab states — equipped with the most advanced American fighter aircraft and so concerned about their fellow Arabs in Syria — can’t or won’t act more boldly, beyond providing weapons to their favored side. I think I know the answer.

As the George W. Bush administration has instructed us, getting into these regional messes is always a lot harder than getting out. And as painful as it is to watch, the wrenching reality of a brutal dictator killing his own people isn’t a compelling enough reason to justify a unilateral, open-ended American military intervention to topple him.

We should stop beating ourselves up for once. Given the complexity of the problem, other pressing priorities, our interests, and the potential costs of an intervention, the administration is doing what it can. Chances are the longer the killing goes on, the more likely we be will dragged into doing more. But the notion that we should intercede quickly with some dramatic,  ill-advised, poorly thought through idea of kill zones or safe havens without thinking through the consequences of what protecting those areas would entail is a prescription for disaster.

Intervening militarily now isn’t about left or right, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, or even about right or wrong — it’s really about choosing between being dumb or smart. I know where I come down.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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