Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Time to End the Killing in Syria

Marc Lynch, a blogger and professor of Middle Eastern studies, has penned a lengthy policy brief about Syria for the Center for a New American Security. It is comprised of two parts that appear to be at war with one another. The first part lays out all the reasons why the West must do something about the escalating violence in Syria.

He warns that Syria is descending into a full-blown “internal war” that “could shatter the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Syria and reverberate across the region.” He even says “Syria could replicate Lebanon of the 1980s, on steroids.” “Beyond these strategic concerns,” he continues, “there is a humanitarian imperative to help the Syrian people. The horrifying evidence of massacres and regime brutality make it difficult – and wrong – for the world to avert its gaze.”

I couldn’t agree more. Where I disagree is in his recommendations for what to do about this calamity which is now unfolding. He argues against military intervention—even against arming the Syrian opposition—in favor of, you guessed it, more robust diplomacy. He proposes to do the following:

First, the international community should present Assad with an ultimatum: Since Assad can no longer participate in a legitimate Syrian government, he, his vice president and a limited group of top regime officials must resign or be referred to the International Criminal Court for War Crimes (ICC). Second, the international community should continue to tighten the economic and financial sanctions against the Assad regime, its senior leaders and the most senior members of the Syrian military. Third, the international community should conduct a sustained and vigorous effort to isolate the Assad regime diplomatically. Fourth, the international community should strengthen the opposition and encourage it to develop a unified political voice. Finally, the United States and its partners should support a strategic communications campaign to publicize the regime’s atrocities, shame those who continue to support the regime and encourage regime members to defect.

All of these steps are worth taking, but they are not very different from what is currently being done—with scant impact. The Assad regime is able to stay in power because it can count on the loyalty of a substantial portion of its security forces and the backing of unsavory regimes such as Russia and Iran. Lynch himself dismisses airy talk from the administration “that the collapse of the Assad regime is only a matter of time.” He notes, rightly, that “Assad’s fall could take a long time. In the interim, many Syrians will die, and the conflict could evolve into an extended regional proxy war that victimizes the Syrian people.” But if that’s the consequence of our current policy, which is focused exclusively on diplomatic efforts to oust Assad, what reason is there to think more diplomacy will make a difference?

Lynch is right to warn that we need to think through the consequences of various military options such as air strikes, no fly zones, safe havens, and arming of the opposition. All of those policies carry potential downsides that need to be carefully considered. But in the end, I don’t find his objections to any military action terribly compelling, because if we don’t act then we are de facto accepting the unacceptable—i.e., a prolongation of the current civil war, which, aside from being a humanitarian disaster, is likely to further atomize Syrian society and provide an opening for extremists.

No one wants more war. But at this point the international community’s best bet (as it was in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999), is to act to end the killing. Yes, there are significant risks in a post-Assad regime, but by playing an active role in helping the opposition, including providing military help, the U.S. and our allies can win influence to shape the future of Syria.

Lynch himself admits that even if we don’t arm the opposition “arms are likely to flood the country if the civil war continues, regardless of U.S. preferences.” What he neglects to mention is where those arms will come from. A likely source: Gulf regimes such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia and radical groups loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and its ilk, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The longer we stay on the sidelines, the more influence they will exert.

There is no ideal option in Syria, and I commend Lynch for warning about the potential pitfalls of military action, but at this point, I don’t see a good alternative.