Intervene now or later?

Joshua Landis, who knows the Syrian regime as well as any American, warns vigorously against military intervention:  we’ve failed at nation-building elsewhere, the effort would be difficult and expensive, our  military is overstretched, the Syrians are fractious.  He argues further:

In all likelihood, the Syrian revolution will be less bloody if Syrians carry it out for themselves. A new generation of national leaders will emerge from the struggle. They will not emerge with any legitimacy if America hands them Syria as a gift. How will they claim that they won the struggle for dignity, freedom and democracy? America cannot give these things. Syrians must take them. America can play a role with aid, arms and intelligence, but it cannot and should not try to decide Syria’s future, determine winners, and take charge of Syria. If Syrians want to own Syria in the future, they must own the revolution and find their own way to winning it. It is better for Syria and it is better for America.

Convinced of the strategic significance of depriving Iran of its Syrian ally, Jamie Rubin takes the opposite view.

The rebellion in Syria has now lasted more than a year. The opposition is not going away, and it is abundantly clear that neither diplomatic pressure nor economic sanctions will force Assad to accept a negotiated solution to the crisis. With his life, his family, and his clan’s future at stake, only the threat or use of force will change the Syrian dictator’s stance. Absent foreign intervention, then, the civil war in Syria will only get worse as radicals rush in to exploit the chaos there and the spillover into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey intensifies…

Arming the Syrian opposition and creating a coalition air force to support them is a low-cost, high-payoff approach. Whether an air operation should just create a no-fly zone that grounds the regimes’ aircraft and helicopters or actually conduct air to ground attacks on Syrian tanks and artillery should be the subject of immediate military planning. And as Barak, the Israeli defense minister, also noted, Syria’s air defenses may be better than Libya’s but they are no match for a modern air force.

The larger point is that as long as Washington stays firm that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed, à la Kosovo and Libya, the cost to the United States will be limited. Victory may not come quickly or easily, but it will come. And the payoff will be substantial. Iran would be strategically isolated, unable to exert its influence in the Middle East. The resulting regime in Syria will likely regard the United States as more friend than enemy. Washington would gain substantial recognition as fighting for the people in the Arab world, not the corrupt regimes.

Both Landis and Rubin try to make the choice sound easy.  It is not.  What could go wrong with American intervention ?  Remember Iraq and Afghanistan.  What could go wrong if we don’t intervene, or if we delay?  Remember Bosnia and Rwanda.

Rubin has conveniently forgotten that the Kosovo intervention that he cites as the right way to do things did eventually involve American boots on the ground.  Units of the National Guard are still there 13 years later.  But he is right that a successful intervention resulting in a pro-Western Syria would reduce Iran’s influence.  If you don’t count firefights among militias at the international airport, you can count Libya as the kind of success Rubin would like in Syria.

The trouble is that an intervention without Russian concurrence, which as Rubin notes will not be forthcoming, would end the P5+1 talks with Iran and wreck any possibility of a united Security Council to deal with its nuclear program.  If your primary strategic objective is not limiting Iran’s influence but rather preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, preferably by diplomatic means, that would be a big loss.  Intervention in Syria could even hasten Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability.

Whatever the merits, I don’t think the intervention is going to happen any time soon.  Neither does Bashar al Assad, whose speech to Syria’s puppet parliament yesterday gave no indication that he expects to face international intervention.  He seems to have not even mentioned the Annan plan or the international observers (but I confess I am still trying to get hold of a full English translation).  Bashar remains confident he can weather the storm.

I’m not certain he is wrong.  Many people are saying that he will never be able to regain control of Syria because he is now illegitimate.  But was he ever really legit?  The difference is that the state he presided over, which once more or less functioned to preserve his hold on power, is now broken, perhaps even failed.

There is little chance that Syria after the civil war in which it is currently engaged will be able to pick itself up, dust off and proceed peacefully to democratic rule, or stable rule of any sort.  Those who hope for a “managed transition” are likely to be disappointed.  Even a coup will not be clean and easy.  Bashar could even stay for years.

But the day is likely to come when the battered Syrian state fails utterly.  The international community may then want to intervene to prevent the civil war and refugees from overflowing into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.  It may also want to prevent the slaughter of the Alawite sect that provides the foundation of the Assad regime, along with Christians and others who have supported Bashar and his father.  If so, it will require boots on the ground.

The question is whether to intervene now, or later.

 

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