There is something that I don’t get about opponents of greater American action in Syria, such as the freelance reporter Benjamin Hall, who was recently in Aleppo. He points out, as other observers have, that the rebels are disorganized and that various factions are often at odds with one another. They don’t have a central, unified leadership. Moreover, the rebel ranks include ”Salafi jihadists” who “talk of slaying the minority Alawites, and [who] call for both the immediate support of America, and its immediate demise. These extremist groups are getting weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar already; they are not groups that the West would choose to arm. Compared with them, it is not clear that Mr. Assad is the bigger foe.” Therefore, Hall recommends not arming the rebels–although he is open to the imposition of a no-fly zone.
Here’s where I don’t follow the logic: Granted, everything he is saying is true–but that is what is happening now, while the U.S. is not arming the rebels and is not imposing a no-fly zone or helping to set up buffer zones for refugees. What makes Hall think that, given the current situation, there is any option of allowing Assad to remain in power and re-impose control? That seems extremely unlikely. What seems more likely, if we continue on the current path, is that the war will continue taking a deadly toll, jihadists will continue to play an ever-bigger role, and chaos will continue to spread across Syria.
Admittedly, stepping in to help topple Assad brings no guarantee of an idyllic post-Assad state–far from it. There is indeed, as Hall notes, a great danger of continuing instability and civil war even after Assad is gone. This could be Libya on steroids or, put another way, a replay of Iraq without U.S. troops to serve as a stabilizing force.
I get all that, but the status quo is hardly peaceful either–Syria is already seeing at least as much bloodshed as Iraq saw during the height of its own internal war. There is no guarantee that the situation will be improved with Assad gone, but there is a guarantee that the situation will remain pretty awful as long as Assad is in power. And there is at least the chance that if the U.S. acts decisively, in cooperation with allies, to topple Assad, it will give us a greater say in the composition of a post-Assad regime, allowing us to help steer Syria in a more moderate direction.
There is no perfect policy choice in Syria–only least bad and worst options. But the worst option of all, I would argue, is to allow the current conflict to rage unabated.