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;
- ... 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.
Finally, he worries that a protracted conflict gives Islamists greater opportunities than does one that ends quickly.
Jordanian Salafi leader Abou Mohamad Tahawi sees Alawis and Shi'is – not Israelis - as the greatest threat to Sunnis.
To which I reply:
- Yes, the WMDs could go rogue but I worry more about their ending up in the hands of an Islamist successor government.
- A renewed PKK insurgency against the hostile government ruling Turkey, or increased Sunni-Alevi tensions in that country, hardly rank as major Western concerns.
- Expelling Palestinians would barely destabilize Jordan or Israel.
- Lebanon is already a balkanized mess; and, as opposed to the 1976-91 period, internal fighting underway there only marginally affects Western interests.
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:
- It lessens the chances of Damascus from starting a war with Israel or re-occupying Lebanon.
- It increases the chances that Iranians, living under the thumb of the mullahs who are Assad's key ally, will draw inspiration from the Syrian uprising and likewise rebel against their rulers.
- It inspires greater Sunni Arab anger at Tehran, especially as the Islamic Republic of Iran has been providing arms, finance, and technology to help repress Syrians.
- It relieves the pressure on non-Muslims: indicative of the new thinking, Jordanian Salafi leader Abou Mohamad Tahawi recently stated that "The Alawi and Shi'i coalition is currently the biggest threat to Sunnis, even more than the Israelis."
- It foments Middle Eastern rage at Moscow and Beijing for supporting the Assad regime.
*Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.