Syria is not just about Syria
Lina Khatib and Larry Diamond have a good piece outlining the case for intervening in Syria over at theatlantic.com. They want the US to supply the opposition with weapons and to intervene from the air to redress the imbalance in favor of the regime, which is using its air force and Scuds to good advantage in preventing the revolution from consolidating (holding and building in COIN-speak) its control of liberated areas. Intervention would shorten the conflict and limit the damage to neighboring countries, which are suffering from overflow of both the conflict and refugees.
I buy their argument, but it is incomplete because it does not look at the bigger picture.
President Obama, as he pointed out some weeks ago in an interview, does not regard Syria as isolated from other issues, because it is not. The most important factors weighing against intervention have little to do with Syria and a lot to do with Russia.
Obama does not want to lose Russian support for the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). It is vital to US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moscow could shut it down, thereby prolonging the American presence in Afghanistan. That is something the Russians would like because they fear the post-2014 consequences of withdrawal. Without the NDN, we would again be at the mercy of the Pakistanis for maintaining the pace of the withdrawal. That is not a good place to be.
The President also does not want to lose support for the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The Russians have not only participated, they have also gone along with the sanctions that give the talks at least some slim hope of success. Of course they too don’t want Tehran to get nuclear weapons, but they might risk that if we act in Syria without their concurrence. Risking American prestige in an air war with Syria could also seriously diminish the credibility of any military threat to Iran, which is bleeding money and men in Syria without any risk to Americans.
Obama regards both the withdrawal from Afghanistan and preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons as higher priorities than ensuring Assad’s downfall.
The President also knows the American people will not be happy with another military intervention in the Middle East. This is not just because of war weariness, though that is real enough. Going to war while the sequester constrains the budget would cause serious strain on the Defense Department and likely end up crimping other priorities as well. If you are an advocate of a strong America, you should want to husband resources after more than a decade of war, not spend them in a place that is suffering mightily but is not a top American national security priority. An air war in Syria would also necessarily tip off the Syrians (and therefore also the Iranians and maybe also the Russians) to our latest and best technology, giving them a leg up in any future confrontation.
I can think of responses to all these issues, but if you don’t deal with them you haven’t made the case. Syria is not just about Syria.