The Middle East Channel

Syria, where you don’t always get what you want

Motivated by President Bashar al-Assad’s terrible murder of civilians and (or) the strategic opportunity to undermine Iran’s staunchest Arab ally, both conservative and liberal voices in the United States now favor military intervention in Syria. There is indeed a striking synergy between the United States’ strategic and humanitarian goals in Syria, either of which could ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Motivated by President Bashar al-Assad’s terrible murder of civilians and (or) the strategic opportunity to undermine Iran’s staunchest Arab ally, both conservative and liberal voices in the United States now favor military intervention in Syria. There is indeed a striking synergy between the United States’ strategic and humanitarian goals in Syria, either of which could potentially motivate military action. But good intentions do not make good policy.

Deposing Assad, weakening Iran, and stopping government-sanctioned murder are all laudable objectives worthy of U.S. investment, but the proposition of using military force to achieve those goals must be weighed against the risks and costs of doing so. And perhaps the singular lesson of the last decade of foreign policy is that the unintended consequences of well-intentioned military action can be massive and outweigh the achievements of noble policy choices. The wisdom and justice of U.S. foreign policy decisions is a function of the consequences they produce, not the hopeful intentions with which they are initiated.

There are three basic problems with the proposals for military intervention in Syria.

Mission Creep

The most prominent plan to intervene in Syria militarily would offer training and materiel to Syria’s rebels while using airpower to carve out "safe-zones" in the north and east of the country, where refugees could presumably find safe harbor and the rebels could regroup and train. This idea is fundamentally incoherent. The reason is simple: creating "safe zones" is unlikely to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Syria or fundamentally undermine Assad, but it will signal a political commitment to military resolution of the conflict. That disconnect — extensive political commitment and ineffective policy choice — is a recipe for mission creep. The limited mission is likely enough to evolve into a broader, more costly mission that it should be debated and considered as such. Whatever the ultimate merits of intervention, there should be no more backing into open-ended conflicts without considering predictable costs.

Establishing "safe zones" in Syria will not stop sectarian cleansing; it will simply define the geographic parameters of that fight. Especially in Syria’s larger cities where sects are mixed in tight, urban neighborhoods, safe zones in Idlib and Deir al-Zour will mean little. In response to established "safe zones," Assad and his Alawite loyalists are more likely to increase attacks on Sunnis outside of the safe zones in order to create Alawite enclaves. Military intervention is no panacea for preventing a humanitarian disaster. More than 55,000 Iraqis were killed in 2006 and 2007 while the United States had almost 150,000 troops on the ground doing what they could to prevent such violence. During that same period, Baghdad was essentially divided on sectarian lines structured around physical barriers the United States used to build security cordons between warring neighborhoods. That strategy of separation ultimately contributed to improved security conditions in Iraq, but only after much of the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad was complete (though perhaps not because the cleansing was complete).

Assad is likely to perceive an attack on Syria to create safe zones as a campaign to destroy him — and he may act extremely unpredictably as a result. This is partly because of the western military campaign in Libya, which was justified on humanitarian grounds but ended in the death of Muammar al-Qaddhafi. If Russia and China have concerns about intervening in Syria on humanitarian grounds due to the Libyan case, imagine Assad’s response to the video of Qaddhafi’s last moments. Of course, it is possible Assad will roll over, but that seems likely only if the Syrian military begins to collapse en masse.

Lastly, creating safe zones will be no cakewalk, especially for Syrians living near air defense installations. Even limited military goals in Syria will require a broad campaign to suppress Syrian air defense systems and, probably, surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missile systems capable of striking western assets. In densely populated Syria, striking those surface-to-air systems is likely to create a slew of unintended civilian casualties (not to mention the threat to U.S. pilots). Much of the world shuddered at the human cost of bombing Baghdad in 2003; do we expect the bombing of Damascus to be so much more precise? How many civilians is it acceptable to kill on a humanitarian mission?

The Day After

Military intervention in Syria might be useful for overthrowing Assad, but it will not facilitate a stable government in Syria after Assad falls. Syria’s rebels have legitimate grievances and share a commitment to overthrowing Assad, but they disagree on just about everything else. The fall of Assad, should it occur, will almost certainly herald the beginning of a sustained period of sectarian and partisan violence in Syria.

The regional actors supporting rebel action against Assad are similarly divided by the political challenges of post-Assad Syria. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Iran will have different visions of Syria’s political make-up after Assad falls and will continue to compete for influence. The result of this mess is likely a sustained period of serious instability, whether or not the United States uses military force to carve out "safe zones" now or, more aggressively, to depose the Assad regime. Going to war without a reasonable plan for managing the ensuing chaos is simply unacceptable.

The likelihood of chaos after Assad falls is also a major reason that the United States should be circumspect about supplying weapons to Syria’s rebels. The issue is not whether today’s Syrian uprising is an "insurgency" or a faction in a "civil war." The nomenclature makes no difference. The issue is time: any weapons the United States provides to Syrian rebels will persist longer than the already meager agreements among Syria’s rebel factions. If the United States arms rebels for the fight against Assad today, it will arm them for civil conflict tomorrow as well, perhaps in Lebanon and Iraq as well as Syria.

Still, a covert program to provide weapons to Syrian rebel factions carries fewer "mission creep" risks than a bombing campaign, though it too is unlikely to produce a decisive end-state. Such support may help usher Assad to the exits, but the actual result is more likely to stabilize a de facto partitioning of Syria, in which neither the government nor rebel groups are capable of producing control nationwide.

The United States should not forswear providing support to militants. In limited settings with important and discrete purposes (such as attacking jihadis, exchanging for chemical weapons, entrenching relationships with well-organized networks, etc.), such support may be a useful tool. But that kind of support is not a strategy on its own and the tactic creates a real potential for blowback.

Unintended Consequences

A serious public debate about going to war means serious consideration of likely unintended consequences. In Syria, there are at least two big ones: creating space for jihadists linked to al Qaeda and increasing the possibility that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical (and perhaps biological) weapons trickle out to Lebanese Hezbollah or a jihadist organization.

There is already ample evidence that jihadi organizations are operating in Syria, though in relatively small numbers. Their presence does not discredit legitimate rebel groups in Syria, nor does it justify Assad’s brutal crackdown. But it does complicate U.S. policymaking because as governance erodes the jihadis will find safe harbor and in doing so they will make Syria more violent. Jihadis are unlikely to dominate politically, but they sharpen existing social and sectarian disputes and make productive resolution of the crisis less likely.

Legitimate anti-Assad activists sometimes argue that Western intervention in Syria is necessary in part to limit radicalization among anti-Assad elements. They argue that Syrians will turn to whoever will support their revolution and that a prolonged fight will become more sectarian. This is an important argument, but it is not reason enough to initiate a broad program to support rebel groups. First, growing sectarianism is not the same as radicalization to al Qaeda-like jihadism, although it is narrowly consistent with al Qaeda’s worldview (as are the views of everyone that wants to overthrow Assad).

Second, the notion of "radicalization" still vexes both academics and policymakers, which is evident in innumerable well intentioned but ill-fated government programs to prevent it. Bombing Syria does not seem likely to improve on these approaches. Only a small fraction of militants that feel abandoned by the West are likely to be attracted to the truly extreme views of al Qaeda, though they may reject — and ultimately oppose — Western interests for other reasons, or consent to the military influence of jihadis operating in Syria. A key commonality of true jihadis is that they disavow Western intervention in the Muslim world. That small fringe is likely to perceive well-intentioned western intervention in Syria as a plot, not an effort to help Syria’s masses. Failure to actively support Syria’s rebels may well lead to a bump in anti-Americanism within the rebel movement, but intervention is likely to foster radicalization to the far jihadi fringe that supports al Qaeda’s worldview.

Third, if it is true that Syria’s rebels are growing more radical it seems a very poor idea to supply them with weapons, which are not known to moderate extreme ideological tendencies. Moreover, the United States does not have anything close to a stellar record when it comes to assessing the potential radicalization of militant groups to limit the risk of blowback, despite the best efforts of dedicated professionals. This is simply a very hard thing to do well and a program in Syria carries the serious risk of becoming Fast and Furious Two: Damascus Edition.

Even more troubling than the potential for jihadis to gain a foothold in Syria are Syria’s chemical weapons. The questions are myriad: If the regime is threatened, would Assad use these weapons against Western targets or Israel? Would Assad transfer chemical weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah? If the Assad regime collapses, can the weapons be secured? Will private actors sell them to the highest bidder? Will some rebel bands pass them to jihadi elements?

The United States actually should be prepared to use targeted force if necessary to control or destroy elements of Syria’s chemical weapons program. But that is far from an optimal option. There is a particularly filthy form of deterrence in Assad’s chemical weapons program. Deterrence comes not just from the threat that Assad will use his chemical weapons, but also from the threat that the weapons will be unsecured and matriculate to terrorists if his regime falls. There are no good answers to the Syrian chemical weapons quandary, but the proposition of military intervention without a clear strategy for mitigating the threat from Assad’s chemical weapons is a non-starter.

A Strategy of Flexible Containment

The United States should have five goals in Syria:

  • Depose Bashar al-Assad.
  • Contain the growing sectarian conflict.
  • Minimize proliferation of Syrian chemical and biological weapons.
  • Limit the spread of jihadists linked to al Qaeda.
  • Mitigate the humanitarian crisis.

The prospect of force or diplomacy or sanctions (or any combination of these tools) satisfactorily achieving these goals in the near term is low, which suggests a course of action that minimizes risk and cost, emphasizes the goals of containing the problem and minimizing the human costs, and maximizing the United States’ flexibility going forward. That means offering limited support to vetted militant groups operating in Syria, offering Russia a pathway to continued influence in Syria after Assad falls (something it may not get if the Assad regime is simply overrun) in exchange for increased cooperation, building an institutional forum now to identify political arrangements after Assad falls, clearly declaring the Assad government illegitimate and ratcheting up sanctions that raise the cost and financial risk of trade with the present regime, dramatically expanding humanitarian support for Syrian refugees, establishing a comprehensive program to secure Syrian chemical and biological weapons (this would include a range of tools: a buy-back program, making transfer of chemical weapon a condition of any Assad exile option, a prepared package of strikes at weapons facilities), and stating very clearly that rebel groups that tolerate jihadis in Syria will face international isolation in the future.

This toolkit is unlikely to produce a "good" result in Syria: the killing will go on and while Assad’s days are numbered, that number is likely reasonably high. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to conduct limited strikes across much of Syria, but there is no indication they are capable of dislodging Syrian Army units enough to threaten the regime, at least in the short-run. At the same time, it is not at all clear that military force will be any more effective than those measures — and the costs associated with direct military intervention are much higher.

Diplomatic and economic sanctions are unlikely to succeed in Syria, at least in the near term, but it is not enough that the military option is a "last resort" in order to make it palatable. (Indeed, the notion of a "last resort" in these debates is essentially specious.) But when they propose to send young Americans to kill and die, advocates of military intervention must show, first and foremost, that such intervention has a reasonable chance of working — and at an acceptable cost and risk. The choice to use force must not be about "trying harder" when other measures fail, it must first be about effectiveness. Will force work to achieve U.S. goals? In the instance of Syria, that case has simply not been made.

Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.