Why Inaction in Syria is Worse
The sudden groundswell of support for Western military intervention in the Syrian Civil War after chemical weapon attacks in the suburbs of Damascus killed over 1,400 people appears to be fizzling just as quickly as it began. Fraught with internal political challenges, the United Kingdom and France have already halted their plans; it appears the United States is poised to do the same, as a bill in Congress to authorize military action may not have enough votes to pass. Though Barack Obama, through his own ineffectual leadership and abuse of executive power, has likely sealed his fate on this vote, there are many sound reasons for why Congress should reconsider and authorize intervention in this case.
I supported military intervention from very early on in the Syrian Civil War, preferring creative means to overcome the inaction of global powers. The intervention of non-state actors in Syria did for a short time boost the rebellion, but in the last year, non-state allies of Bashar al-Assad, including Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias have followed suit. Additionally, Iran and Russia continue to pour money and weapons into the country. No number of individuals coming to help the Syrian rebels can sufficiently counter the intervention of these major powers. Additionally, some non-state groups have morphed into groups with Islamic extremist ideologies, such as ISIS, which endanger the possibility of a future democratic Syrian society.
In addition to these facts, it is important to understand al-Assad’s view of the conflict as deeply existential.
He will not negotiate. Ever.
For him, to relent means certain death for himself, his family, and the minority Syrian Alawite sect. All of this information can be applied to three basic choices for the United States. Though no outcome of these choices can ever be guaranteed, it is possible to calculate a risk-benefit analysis. The United States can:
A) intervene with airstrikes, cruise missiles, and so forth, short of inserting troops;
B) do nothing, and allow the civil war to continue as it has;
C) take action only to assist refugees of the conflict.
Choice A has received incredible resistance and criticism. Being a weighty decision, it does deserve discussion. Though it is a hard choice, I believe it is the correct choice. There are some downsides to intervention. It will cost billions of dollars, but by limiting operations to strikes as in Libya, intervention will be significantly more cost-effective than say, Iraq. Some have said strikes will do nothing to turn the tide of the war or prevent further use of chemical weapons. I strongly disagree. The rebels, for all their disorganization, lack of heavy equipment, and slip-ups, have done an incredible job against an army with superior equipment and deep reserves. If they had even the slightest edge of American air power on their side, they could overrun many of the bases they have besieged and quickly oust Assad, finally allowing for the next stages of democratization to proceed.
Some fear that strikes would not stop chemical weapon attacks, or might accidentally release poison gas into the air and kill more people. However, technology exists to prevent such a terrible unintended event from occurring.
In the event that the rebellion is successful in ousting Assad, the rebels will be painfully aware of who helped them and who stood on the sidelines. America was extremely popular in Libya after intervening there. It would be a waste to see Assad deposed, only to have another anti-American regime take its place. Syria has even more geopolitical strategic value with regards to Israel/Palestine, Iraq, and Iran, so having a friend here would be a golden opportunity and an entirely worthwhile investment.
Choice B is appealing to non-interventionist sectors. The United States will save some money and avoid reprisals and further embroilment in the Middle East.
Meanwhile in Syria the following things will likely occur:
1) Tens of thousands more civilians will die from poison gas attacks (not to mention the many more tens of thousands who will die from bombs and bullets). Bashar al-Assad has not used further chemical weapons yet since August 21st because he is still waiting for a response from the West, if any. If the United States does nothing now, Assad will know that the ‘red line’ was a hollow threat. In this regard, Obama was tested, and is on the verge of failing. Despite what some may say, credibility is important on the international stage. Merely having a large military as the United States does clearly doesn’t matter if it is unwilling to use it.
2) International terrorist groups will continue to exploit the power vacuum of Syria and grow stronger. Essentially al-Qaeda will have been handed a new 1990s Afghanistan. Even with Assad still around, state security will not recover enough to suppress these groups as it had.
3) Assad will win. The Free Syrian Army and various allied rebels might operate in a small guerrilla capacity, but will be forced out of all major population centers and into exile. The National Council will dissolve. Resupply from Iran and Russia will ensure this outcome. The initial causes for the revolution (democracy, dignity, opportunity, etc.) will be permanently lost if they have not already. With Egypt having reverted to its dictatorial days, the ‘win-loss’ ratio for the Arab Spring is looking poor.
All of these outcomes damage American credibility and material interests. Describing those skeptical toward intervention, one of the latest articles in the Economist put it best when it said:
These sceptics are fighting the last war. Syria is not Iraq…The more America steps back, the more other powers will step in. If it is unwilling to act as enforcer, its own norms will fray. If it is even thought to be reluctant, then they will be tested.
Choice C is the foreign policy equivalent of giving an ice pack to someone who just lost a leg to a shark. As long as the civil war continues, thousands of refugees will pour out of Syria. Camps will overflow and host countries will be severely strained. The longer the civil war continues, the immigration status of the millions of Syrian refugees will become an issue. Camps will become permanent as families grow, and refugees will become stateless people trapped in limbo, unable to legally work in their host country, much like Palestinians who live in refugee camps all over the region to this day, decades after being displaced from their homes. Many US politicians who oppose military intervention support this absurd (and in the long-term, likely more expensive) choice, including my own representative. Pure humanitarian assistance is not wrong, but it is certainly a waste when the root cause of a refugee’s status is not addressed.
The United Nations has already become a sham of an organization over this issue. The United States should not be a sham of a country. Runaway executive power is a concern of mine, as it is of many critics of the Obama administration, and I am glad Congress is being consulted here even as a formality. But even if strikes proceed without authorization, they should continue with intensity for the 90 days before the War Powers Act kicks in and withdrawal is forced by Congress. I believe this to be a case of the ‘right’ thing and the law differing.
The time for delay is over; the time to intervene has arrived. We could have avoided some of the more dire outcomes we face now had intervention occurred a year or more ago, but all that can be done now is to deal with the situation as it is and prevent the possibility of even worse scenarios from developing. No choice is without some consequence, but the choice to militarily intervene in Syria is the only reasonable course of action. Congress should authorize intervention in Syria immediately so that strikes can be as effective as possible. The long term benefit of this action belongs to the Syrian and American people both.