Stay out of the Syrian Morass
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
As the Syrian government makes increasingly desperate and vicious efforts to keep power, pleas for military intervention, more or less on the Libyan model, have become more insistent. This course is morally attractive, to be sure. But should Western states follow this counsel? I believe not.
Those calls to action fall into three main categories: a Sunni Muslim concern for co-religionists, a universal humanitarian concern to stop torture and murder, and a geopolitical worry about the impact of the ongoing conflict. The first two motives can be fairly easily dispatched. If Sunni governments – notably those of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar - choose to intervene on behalf of fellow Sunnis against Alawis, that is their prerogative but Western states have no dog in this fight.
Generalized humanitarian concerns face problems of veracity, feasibility, and consequence. Anti-regime insurgents, who are gaining on the battlefield, appear responsible for at least some atrocities. Western electorates may not accept the blood and treasure required for humanitarian intervention. It must succeed quickly, say within a year. The successor government may (as in the Libyan case) turn out even worse than the existing totalitarianism. Together, these factors argue compellingly against humanitarian intervention.
Foreign policy interests should take precedence because Westerners are not so strong and safe that they can look at Syria only out of concern for Syrians; rather, they must view the country strategically, putting a priority on their own security.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy has helpfully summarized in The New Republic reasons why a Syrian civil war poses dangers to U.S. interests: the Assad regime could lose control of its chemical and biological arsenal; it could renew the PKK insurgency against Ankara; regionalize the conflict by pushing its Palestinian population across the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Israeli borders; and fight the Sunnis of Lebanon, reigniting the Lebanese civil war. Sunnis jihadi warriors, in response, could turn Syria into the global nexus of violent Islamist terrorism – one bordering NATO and Israel. Finally, he worries that a protracted conflict gives Islamists greater opportunities than does one that ends quickly.
As for time working against Western interests: even if the Syrian conflict ended immediately, I foresee almost no prospect of a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional government emerging. Whether sooner or later, after Assad and his lovely wife decamp, Islamists will likely seize power, Sunnis will take vengeance, and regional tensions will play out within Syria.
Also, overthrowing the Assad regime does not mean the sudden end of Syria's civil war. More likely, Assad's fall will lead to Alawi and other Iranian-backed elements resisting the new government. Moreover, as Gary Gambill points out, Western military involvement could embolden opposition to the new government and prolong the fighting. Finally (as earlier was the case in Iraq), protracted conflict in Syria offers some geopolitical advantages:
Western interests suggest staying out of the Syrian morass.
June 13, 2012 update: I respond to several reactions to the above article at "Further Thoughts on Not Intervening in Syria."
June 27, 2012 update: In "The Syrian Uprising: The View from Tehran," Annie Tracy Samuel of Tel Aviv University also makes the point about the internal dangers that the Syrian uprising presents to the Iranian rulers:
Aug. 21, 2012 update: I offer another argument along these lines at "Wait Out the War in Syria" in The Washington Times.
Reader comments (45) on this item
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes