The civil war in Syria took a tragic turn over the weekend as the Assad forces disregarded the negotiated cease-fire and led attacks that resulted in the death of nearly 100 Syrians. The United States and other Western states responded with a coordinated dismissal of Syrian diplomats, but the move was decried by some as merely a symbolic gesture in the face of what has been described as a massacre. General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went on Fox News and made a calculated statement about the Administration’s possible response, making clear that “there is always a military option.” To be sure, General Dempsey qualified that statement by noting that “You’ll always find military leaders to be somewhat cautious about the use of force, because we’re never entirely sure what comes out on the other side.” But the tide appears to be turning in favor of the war hawks, many of whom have been calling for some type of military intervention for months.
Before the Washington consensus falls in line behind the notion that we should either “arm the opposition” or lead some kind of Libya-like military intervention, it’s important to understand the limitations of military action in Syria and have an honest conversation about what goals we think we could actually accomplish without making the situation worse. Anyone advocating stronger U.S. action needs to read and engage with the analysis of Marc Lynch, who testified last month before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, laying bare the unique complications with the action being advocated by military hawks:
It is not enough to demonstrate that the cause of intervention is just. The available military options do not have a reasonable chance of improving the situation at an acceptable cost, and could easily make matters worse. Syria is not Libya, where the United States acted with a clear mandate from the UN Security Council and could use air power in support of a well-organized opposition which controlled territory. Syria’s demographics, geography, divided population, strategic location; military capabilities and international alliances pose a far more daunting target. We should not rely on overly optimistic assumptions about the efficacy of an intervention, the response of the Syrian regime and its international allies, or our ability to manage the conflict. There are vanishingly few historical examples of entrenched regimes embroiled in a civil war suddenly collapsing after a symbolic show of force from outside. Most likely, limited military intervention would alter but not end the dynamics of a long conflict, embroiling the United States directly in a protracted and bloody insurgency and civil war.
There are at least four different, and potentially conflicting, objectives for military action against Syria which have been articulated: civilian protection; regime change; weakening Iran; and political credibility. These goals are not necessarily mutually compatible. Arming the Free Syrian Army, for instance, would likely lead to a dramatic increase in lost civilian lives and have only dubious hopes of speeding regime change, but increase the chances of embroiling Syria in a long crisis which would harm Iran. Those hoping primarily to change the regime in Syria oppose diplomatic efforts which might reduce civilian deaths.
The arguments Dr. Lynch makes in his testimony were first put forth in a report released earlier this year. Since its publication, proponents of military intervention have yet to address the
central questions that it posses: What would an intervention actually look like, what could it realistically achieve, and at what cost? There are a number of key distinctions between Libya and Syria in terms of the political, geographic, and tactical challenges — to say nothing of the much more diverse and non-cohesive composition of the rebel forces and the geo-strategic issues involving Russia. Before we fuel up the F-16s and jump into yet another Middle Eastern war with guns blazing, we must have an honest discussion about these issues in a realistic, strategic, and fact-based way. That discussion has yet to occur.