A Syrian Intervention Scenario

I do not often find myself in agreement with political scientist Robert Pape whose “research” into suicide bombings I roundly panned in a lengthy review for his unconvincing attempts to blame “foreign occupation” for all suicide bombings–even in countries that have never been occupied. So I was stunned to find myself in a large measure of agreement with Pape’s New York Times oped today arguing that civilized states should not wait until genocide is actually being committed to intervene. He writes:

A new standard for humanitarian intervention is needed. If a continuing government-sponsored campaign of mass homicide — in which thousands have died and many thousands more are likely to die — is occurring, a coalition of countries, sanctioned by major international and regional institutions, should intervene to stop it, as long as they have a viable plan, with minimal risk of casualties for the interveners.

I couldn’t agree more, and Syria seems to be a case in point of exactly the kind of situation where Pape would justify intervention. Of course, he backs out at the end by arguing that intervention wouldn’t be prudent because of “the absence of a viable, low-casualty military solution”:

Unlike Libya, where much of the coastal core of the population lived under rebel control, the opposition to Syria’s dictatorial president, Bashar al-Assad, has not achieved sustained control of any major population area. So air power alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.

But just because Syria doesn’t conform to the template of Libya doesn’t mean there is nothing outside powers can do. In fact, there is quite a bit: Steps that have been discussed include increasing Bashar Assad’s diplomatic isolation with a total international cutoff of his regime, embargoing the import of further arms to his regime, setting up humanitarian safe zones along the border with Turkey that would be policed by Turkish troops, arming and training the Syrian opposition, and launching air strikes on regime targets. It’s true the opposition does not currently control a region of Syria as the Libyan opposition controlled Benghazi and its environs. But nor is the regime in secure control of the country—major cities like Homs slip in and out of its control and even the Damascus suburbs have seen fighting in recent days. Although Assad continues to get shameful support from Russia and Syria, it is not inconceivable that a little more Western pressure could nudge him out of power. And a ground invasion—something no one is discussing—would not be required.

Assad’s removal is an objective worth seeking urgently because as Charles Krauthammer and Jackson Diehl point out in typically cogent Washington Post op-eds, the stakes in Syria are not just humanitarian. This is a huge opportunity to strike an indirect blow against Assad’s patrons in Syria and to change the balance of power in the Middle East. The Obama administration should be doing more to take advantage of the moment.