Point Intervention is Not Feasible for Syria
by Rory Cahill
Counterpoint We Have a Responsibility to Protect Syria
by Shadi Hamid
In 1949 American CIA agents helped the pro-Western general Husni al-Za’im overthrow Syria’s democratically elected president. Za’im was overthrown four months later, beginning a series of bloody coups that dominated Syrian politics for years to come. The CIA repeatedly attempted to “steer” the Syrians in the right direction, and much like in Iran, a distrust in the United States has pervaded Syria ever since. So when we ask the question, “should the United States intervene in Syria for the sake of democracy?” we should consider what happened the last time. The current situation in Syria is potentially more complicated than it was in 1949, yet thousands of ‘experts’ are calling for military intervention.
The ongoing Syrian demonstrations are unlike the anti-government protests of Eastern Europe in the late ‘80s. To the Western observer, the reasoning for revolution in Syria seems obvious; Bashar al-Assad is a repressive tyrant who succeeded his father, an even more repressive tyrant, and the time has come for a democratic Syria. But many ordinary people in Syria demonstrate for more tangible reasons. For the people of rural Western Syria, massive droughts and inadequate agricultural relief pushed people over the edge. For the people of Deraa, where the revolt began, decreasing water supplies and the government’s treatment of children pushed residents into action. And in Hama, memories of a 1982 massacre leaving thousands of innocent civilians dead and one of the oldest urban centers in the world destroyed cemented citizens’ resolve against Assad.
The Syrian regime’s reaction could have been predicted. Assad read the authoritarian playbook well; crush the first signs of revolt and hope that the regime’s brutality instills fear in the people. To the enduring credit of the Syrian people, this strategy has failed. When I lived in Lebanon this past summer and fall, the whole country waited apprehensively for the first reports out of Syria each Friday as protestors on the street went up against heavily armed government forces. The death toll has been staggering. The Assad regime has undeniably committed serious crimes against its own people. But a large number of Syrian people do still support Assad. Many fear another period of violent instability akin to what followed the 1949 coup. Appeals to security and stability from Bashar al-Assad, Iran, Arab leaders, Russia, and China have some merit, though they ignore the level of violence and underestimate the determination of anti-government forces.
This introduces the defining question of intervention: who are the Syrian rebels? They certainly exist, unlike rebels discussed before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but there is no unitary bloc of opposition capable of re- placing Asad’s regime with some form of stable govern- ment. The Syrian National Council has claimed legiti- macy as a representative, but there is little evidence that it controls events on the ground and plenty suggesting that most members are long-time exiles or part of sectarian groups seeking to impose the will of the Sunni Muslim majority.
The Syrian rebels consist of army defectors, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and thousands more we know nothing about. They are in no way pledged to support pluralistic democracy. Recent history holds far too many examples of an outside power arming the wrong people and watching decades of bloodshed en- sue. Developing into a sectarian conflict is not unlikely, with different religious groups embarking on a danger- ous path of religious and ethnic cleansing funded by the United States. We need only remember Afghanistan, Croatia and East Timor to know that our good inten- tions can produce appalling results.
Pro-interventionists often cite Libya as an example of ‘smart intervention’. I supported the U.S.-backed coalition actions in Libya, but the months after Qaddafi’s removal indicate that peaceful democracy in Libya will be a long-term project preceded by more bloodshed. Libyan instability has spread across northern Africa to places such as Mali and Chad, creating more violence and headaches for American diplomacy. Maintaining the balance of power in the Middle East is a delicate and dangerous game. Syria occupies one of the most strategic areas in the region, bordering Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Violence in Syria can spill across any of these borders, creating regional conflict.
Some commentators have suggested direct military intervention—a Libya-style approach. But Syria is a densely populated country where adjacent neighborhoods could fall on either side of the conflict. Bombing tank divisions in central Libya is entirely different than pinpointing security service agents dressed as civilians in massive urban areas. Aerial bombardment would only result in thousands of civilian deaths, turning the opinion of the Arab world yet again against the U.S.
With intervention off the table, what is the best way forward in Syria? Senseless violence is only increasing as Assad’s grasp on power weakens. Conventional diplomacy has been ineffective, but through a strategy of en- gagement with players outside of the normal diplomatic discourse—Russia and China—a more peaceable solution is possible. Once Russia and China acknowledge Asad’s regime is through, they will be instrumental in holding the country together. Until this happens, we must continue with constructive public diplomacy and pursue further international sanctions targeted at the financial resources of the military and the regime. We must support Syria’s transition on responsible terms and above all, keep in mind the consequences of intervening in a situation we do not fully understand.
I was an early supporter of military intervention in Libya. I called for a no-fly zone on February 23, just 8 days after protests began. Now we’re nearly 300 days into the Syrian uprising. Very few analysts, myself included, have publicly called for foreign intervention, even though the Syrian regime has proven both more unyielding and more brutal than Muammar Qaddafi’s.
It may make sense, then, to revisit the reasoning behind the NATO operation in Libya. First, American policymakers should—as a matter of principle—take Arab public opinion seriously. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, there were no widespread calls among Iraqis themselves for us, or anyone else, to intervene militarily. In Libya, there were. The Libyan rebels were practically begging us to step in with military force.
In recent months, a rapidly growing number of Syrian activists, both on the ground and those in exile, have called forcefully and repeatedly for some form of foreign intervention, whether through the establishment of no-fly zones, no-drive zones, humanitarian corridors, “safe zones,” or through the arming of rebel forces such as the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian National Council, the most important Syrian opposition body and the closest analogue to Libya’s National Transitional Council, has unequivocally called for foreign intervention. The same goes for Syrian activists on the ground. Each week, they agree on a theme for the Friday protests that take place across the country. On Friday, October 28, the protests were dubbed, again rather unambiguously, “no-fly zone Friday.” We can’t—and shouldn’t—endorse something just because a country’s opposition wants us to, but we do need to take their calls seriously, particularly because they are directed to us.
The clichéd refrain that the Arab uprisings are about “them” and not “us” seems to treat Western powers as innocent bystanders, which they aren’t and haven’t been for five decades. International factors have been critical in the majority of countries facing unrest, including Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. In short, U.S. support for democracy matters and will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. In some countries, it will matter a great deal.
Some critics of the Libya intervention feared it would set a precedent. I hoped it would set a precedent—that whenever pro-democracy protesters were threatened with massacre, the U.S., Europe, and its allies would take the responsibility to protect seriously, and consider military intervention as a legitimate option—provided that those on the ground asked us to do so. Unfortunately, one successful case of military intervention—in Libya—is not enough to establish a precedent. For too long, the Syrian regime has assumed, correctly it turns out, that Libya was the exception that proved the rule. Obama administration officials have said as much, insisting that the military option is not being seriously considered for Syria.
To be sure, one should always look at Western intervention in Arab lands with some degree of skepticism. The United States has a tragic history in the region, supporting repressive dictatorships for over 50 years with rather remarkable consistency. But where there is sin there is also atonement. What made Libya a “pure” intervention was that we acted not because our vital in- terests were threatened but in spite of the fact that they were not. Libya provided us an opportunity to begin the difficult work of re-orienting U.S. foreign policy, to align ourselves, finally, with our own ideals.
For me, Syria is part of this bigger debate; what role does the United States seek for itself in a rapidly changing world, a world in which activists and rebels still long for an America that will recognize the struggle and come to the aid of their revolutions? The rising democracies of Brazil and India cannot offer this. Russia and China certainly cannot.
Hastening Bashar al-Assad’s fall, aside from being the right thing to do, would also be squarely in our self-interest. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis would be destroyed. Iran would find itself significantly weak- ened without its traditional entry point into the Arab world. Hezbollah, dependent on both Iranian and Syrian military and financial support, would also suffer. A democratic Syria, meanwhile, would likely be more in line with U.S. interests. In a free election, a reconstituted Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would stand a good chance of winning a plurality of seats. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has had the distinction of being one of the region’s fiercest opponents of Iranian hegemony.
In short, whether based on ideals or interests, the case for intervention is strong. I am not, however, a military specialist. I cannot say whether military intervention would work. Considering all the variables at play, it could turn into a terrible mess, perhaps more terrible than it already is.
Indeed, there are a number of reasons why intervention, today, would be premature, but it may not be in a month or in two. The international community must begin considering a variety of military options—the establishment of “safe zones” seems the most plausible— and determine which enjoys the highest likelihood of causing more good than harm. This is now—after nearly a year of waiting and hoping—the right thing to do. It is also the responsible thing to do.
About the Issue
Point author: Rory Cahill is a junior studying History and Arabic, and is also a co-director for the Roosevelt Institute’s Center on Defense and Diplomacy. He spent last semester studying Arabic at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
Counterpoint author: Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Edited by: Mike Guisinger
Cover by: Jill Brandwein