Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Debate on Syria

As Bashar al-Assad's rampage continues, even escalates, and more rebels and innocent civilians get killed, discussions of intervention in Syria have become louder and more numerous in academic and policy circles. Scholarly blogs and opinion pieces and magazine articles, as well as policymaker speeches and statements, have all touched on this topic. As one example, last week hawkish senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman--arguably the most prominent group to publicly contribute to the intervention debate so far--called for greater diplomatic, political, and military support (including U.S. air strikes) for the Syrian rebels.

What all of these statements and writings have in common is an effort to determine the costs and benefits of intervention versus those of non-action. Those advocating some form of intervention believe that the costs of non-action are greater than intervening in Syria, and that intervention provides larger benefits over standing-by and letting the situation resolve according to the internal dynamics in syria. Those against intervention reverse the aforementioned relationship, to varying degrees, between costs and benefits.

In the March 12 issue of Time magazine, I came across a particularly illuminating debate on the pros and cons of intervention between Shadi Hamid (Brookings Instituion) and Marc Lynch (prof. at GWU). It's a nice, instructive conversation precisely because Hamid and Lynch incorporate, and at times expand on, many of the existing arguments in the intervention debate. (Unforunately, the Hamid-Lynch debate is behind a subscriber paywall. For those who subscribe to Time, you can find this debate on pages 16-17; and for those who don't, you can get the gist of their arguments by perusing their blogs (HamidLynch).)

Hamid argues in favor of intervention. In his view, the costs of not doing so are significant. He believes the moral dimension of the internal struggle, in particular that the international community has a responsibility to assist and protect endangered Syrian populations, as well as the geostrategic context necessitates action. Regarding the latter point, Hamid writes: "Syria today is in danger of becoming a failed state. The regime has lost control over large swaths of territory. Al Qaeda and other extremists are hoping to take advantage of the growing power vacuum. Can the world afford a failing state and protracted civil war in such a vital region?"

Hamid calls for the U.S., working with other countries, presumably local Arab nations and Turkey, to take the initiative to intervene in and stabilize Syria. He sees this happening in two steps. First, to enable the rebels to better defend themselves, this American-led coalition would send light arms and more advanced weaponry. Second, the coalition would create safe havens, or "liberated zones," along Syria's border with Turkey. To accomplish this and defend these areas, Hamid admits, airpower, a naval blockade, and even troops (from Arab countries or Turkey) could be required.

The goal, according to Hamid, isn't regime change, but "to demonstrate international resolve, encourage regime defections and compel the Syrian government to alter its calculations about the use of force." More specifically, he believes a strong and committed intervention can demonstrate to Assad and his cronies that they can't win by using force and violence, which might put sufficient pressure on the regime to back down. It might cause Assad to come to the negotiating table or, at a minimum, agree to a cease-fire. The idea is that murderous tyrants like are only going to start being a part of the solution when they are confronted with overwhelming coercive power.

Lynch, by contrast, makes the case against intervention. He argues that "arming the opposition or using western airpower against Syrian territory will likely only play into Assad's hands," potentially empowering his regime. Moreover, carving out safe havens isn't easy and will require more military airpower than is typically suggested. And just as Yohanes has written, Lynch doesn't think distributing arms is the answer either. "By funneling arms to the rebels in the absence of any unified leadership, we could not hope to even the military balance of power." Lastly, intervention in Syria runs the grave risk of intensifying the fighting, making the conflict even bloodier, and hardening the political positions of both sides, which would only make a political/diplomatic settlement much tougher to reach.

Instead, Lynch thinks that helping the rebels to better organize themselves is the way to go. The rebels will never be an effective fighting force as long as they remain a divided and fragmented bunch of independent groups. They also must "persuade the undecided middle ground of Syrians, many of whom continue to support Assad out of fear for the future, to abandon the regime." Lynch contends that the rebels, in response to this problem, should focus their time and effort on formulating a political plan, one that aims "to reassure minorities and other uncommitted communities of their place in a post-Assad Syria."

From Lynch's perspective, the goal is to create "the conditions for a relatively smooth transition after [Assad] falls. This is why he's mostly concerned about the political cohesion among the rebels and their supporters and the depth of the opposition's support. It is these things that will determine whether the rebels will successfully oust Assad and if they can ensure the safety and stability of Syrian politics going forward.

Here is my take. I think Hamid is spot on to point out the moral and strategic interests at stake. And while his plans are completely understandable and normatively admirable, they are probably not doable in practice, at this at this point. Putting extreme coercive pressure on Assad could very well end the bloodshed. And it certainly satisfies a visceral temptation to lash out at evil wrongdoers like Assad. But Hamid overstates Arab support for intervention or at least doesn't parse out what specific actions they do support. Arms? Sure. But air strikes and boots on the ground? Highly doubtful. And there doesn't seem to be much citizen and policymaker support for invasive intervention in the West. Hamid's main contribution is to add to the growing chorus of people who believe that the status quo is Syria is not working or sustainable.

Lynch's more cautious approach dutifully takes into account the unpredicatable and often disastrous consequences of military interventions, which is important point often overlooked by foreign policy hawks. That said, Lynch's ideas are probably too passive to change Syria much in the near term. Furthermore, they leave more questions unanswered than solved. For example, how should the U.S. and its allies help the Syrian opposition organize itself? Lynch is very vague on this. He also never addresses how we will likely arrive at a post-Assad Syria. Will he step down? Will the rebels overthrow him? Or will Assad crack under international pressure?

Additionally, Lynch doesn't adequately explain how the "middle ground of Syrians" will switch sides, transferring their loyalties from the regime to the opposition. It is not a matter of persuasion, as Lynch indicates. The determining factor is whether the rebels can make enough military progress to inspire hope that they will win the conflict and oust Assad. This is the key, for the Syrian people will only side with whichever side they think will win. The risks are far too great to behave otherwise. Just consider this: if groups ally with the opposition and the rebels aren't successful in their resistance, then they will very likely be revenge targets (harassment, imprisonment, assassination) after the conflict has ended, if not before then.

We have to face the world as it is right now. One part of that is recognizing that Syria isn't Libya. Assad possesses far more political and military power than Gaddafi did before his demise. We should also note that the Syrian rebels don't really hold any territory (never really did, and Assad has retaken most of what the rebels seized), unlike the Libyan militias, which managed to take and hold large areas of land, making it easier for NATO forces to disburse assistance. Syria is a tougher nut to crack.

Also keep in mind that the world does not seem to have much taste for another intervention on the order of what occurred in libya. The West seems content to let the Saudis arm the rebels while they  undertake under the radar diplomatic and political moves to help organize the rebels, just like Lynch recommended. I don't doubt that these efforts could be of value when Assad finally does fall from power, but they only minimally address the immediate problem of the ongoing violence committed by the Assad regime. In short, they don't sufficiently shift the balance of forces and capabilities on the ground. The rebels are still getting routed and Assad is still firmly in power, buttressed by his military power and the considerable "assistance" via Iran. Given this situation, Assad thinks he can win the struggle for power and sees no need to make compromises. Hence, he is unwilling to implement a cease-fire or come to the bargaining table.

It will be interesting to see how the Arab states, Turkey, and the West, and the U.S. in particular, will respond should the Assad-sponsored violence, death, and destruction persist relatively unabated. Will they remain firmly against measures like air strikes and safe zones? Will they allow the Russians and Chinese to continue to set the agenda, which, of course, allows Assad to buy more time to crush his opponents and consolidate his grip on the country. Or is there a breaking point that will trigger stronger international action against Syria?

My guess is that, as usual, it will be up to Washington to take a much bigger overt leadership position. If anything gets done here, it will likely only come from America's urging and instiagtion and its military power (either the threat/application of it). Indeed, U.S. military power might be the only coercive tool that can credibly signal the international community's rejection of the Assad regime and its resolve to restore order. Does Team Obama have the stomach to deepen its commitment to Syria? The safety and security of thousands of lives might depend on it.

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