The civil war in Syria, one of the few lasting legacies of the Arab Spring, has been under way for more than two years. There has been substantial outside intervention in the war. The Iranians in particular, and the Russians to a lesser extent, have supported the Alawites under Bashar al Assad. The Saudis and some of the Gulf States have supported the Sunni insurgents in various ways. The Americans, Europeans and Israelis, however, have for the most part avoided involvement.
Last week the possibility of intervention increased. The Americans and Europeans have had no appetite for intervention after their experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. At the same time, they have not wanted to be in a position where intervention was simply ruled out. Therefore, they identified a redline that, if crossed, would force them to reconsider intervention: the use of chemical weapons.
There were two reasons for this particular boundary. The first was that the United States and European states have a systemic aversion to the possession and usage of weapons of mass destruction in other countries. They see this ultimately as a threat to them, particularly if such weapons are in the hands of non-state users. But there was a more particular reason in Syria. No one thought that al Assad was reckless enough to use chemical weapons because they felt that his entire strategy depended on avoiding U.S. and European intervention, and that therefore he would never cross the redline. This was comforting to the Americans and Europeans because it allowed them to appear decisive while avoiding the risk of having to do anything.
However, in recent weeks, first the United Kingdom and France and then Israel and the United States asserted that the al Assad regime had used chemical weapons. No one could point to an incidence of massive deaths in Syria, and the evidence of usage was vague enough that no one was required to act immediately.
In Iraq, it turned out there was not a nuclear program or the clandestine chemical and biological weapons programs that intelligence had indicated. Had there been, the U.S. invasion might have had more international support, but it is doubtful it would have had a better outcome. The United States would have still forced the Sunnis into a desperate position, the Iranians would have still supported Shiite militias and the Kurds would have still tried to use the chaos to build an autonomous Kurdish region. The conflict would have still been fought and its final outcome would not have looked very different from how it does now.
What the United States learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is that it is relatively easy for a conventional force to destroy a government. It is much harder — if not impossible — to use the same force to impose a new type of government. The government that follows might be in some moral sense better than what preceded it — it is difficult to imagine a more vile regime than Saddam Hussein’s — but the regime that replaces it will first be called chaos, followed by another regime that survives to the extent that it holds the United States at arm’s length. Therefore, redline or not, few want to get involved in another intervention pivoting on weapons of mass destruction.
Interventionist Arguments and Illusions
However, there are those who want to intervene for moral reasons. In Syria, there is the same moral issue that there was in Iraq. The existing regime is corrupt and vicious. It should not be forgotten that the al Assad regime conducted a massacre in the city of Hama in 1982 in which tens of thousands of Sunnis were killed for opposing the regime. The regime carried out constant violations of human rights and endless brutality. There was nothing new in this, and the world was able to act fairly indifferent to the events, since it was still possible to create media blackouts in those days. Syria’s patron, the Soviet Union, protected it, and challenging the Syrian regime would be a challenge to the Soviet Union. It was a fight that few wanted to wage because the risks were seen as too high.
The situation is different today. Syria’s major patron is Iran, which had (until its reversal in Syria) been moving toward a reshaping of the balance of power in the region. Thus, from the point of view of the American right, an intervention is morally required to confront evil regimes. There are those on the left who also want intervention. In the 1980s, the primary concern of the left was the threat of nuclear war, and they saw any intervention as destabilizing a precarious balance. That concern is gone, and advocacy for military intervention to protect human rights is a significant if not universal theme on the left.
The difference between right-wing and left-wing interventionists is the illusions they harbor. In spite of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, right-wing interventionists continue to believe that the United States and Europe have the power not only to depose regimes but also to pacify the affected countries and create Western-style democracies. The left believes that there is such a thing as a neutral intervention — one in which the United States and Europe intervene to end a particular evil, and with that evil gone, the country will now freely select a Western-style constitutional democracy. Where the right-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, the left-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Libya.
Everyone loved the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. What was not to like? The Evil Empire was collapsing for the right; respect for human rights was universally embraced for the left. But Eastern Europe was occupied by Josef Stalin in 1945 following domination and occupation by Adolf Hitler. Eastern Europeans had never truly embraced either, and for the most part loathed both. The collapse freed them to be what they by nature were. What was lurking under the surface had always been there, suppressed but still the native political culture and aspiration.
That is not what was under the surface in Afghanistan or Iraq. These countries were not Europe and did not want to be. One of the reasons that Hussein was despised was that he was secular — that he violated fundamental norms of Islam both in his personal life and in the way he governed the country. There were many who benefited from his regime and supported him, but if you lopped off the regime, what was left was a Muslim country wanting to return to its political culture, much as Eastern Europe returned to its.
In Syria, there are two main factions fighting. The al Assad regime is Alawite, a heterodox offshoot of Shi’ism. But its more important characteristic is that it is a secular regime, not guided by either liberal democracy or Islam but with withering roots in secular Arab Socialism. Lop it off and what is left is not another secular movement, this time liberal and democratic, but the underlying Muslim forces that had been suppressed but never eradicated. A New York Times article this week pointed out that there are no organized secular forces in areas held by the Sunni insurgents. The religious forces are in control. In Syria, secularism belonged to the Baath Party and the Alawites, and it was brutal. But get rid of it, and you do not get liberal democracy.
This is what many observers missed in the Arab Spring. They thought that under the surface of the oppressive Hosni Mubarak regime, which was secular and brutal, was a secular liberal democratic force. Such a force was present in Egypt, more than in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, but still did not represent the clear alternative to Mubarak. The alternative — not as clearly as elsewhere, but still the alternative — was the Muslim Brotherhood, and no secular alternative was viable without the Egyptian army.
The Difficulties of an Intervention
There are tremendous military challenges to dealing with Syria. Immaculate interventions will not work. A surgical strike on chemical facilities is a nice idea, but the intelligence on locations is never perfect, Syria has an air defense system that cannot be destroyed without substantial civilian casualties, and blowing up buildings containing chemical weapons could release the chemicals before they burn. Sending troops deep into Syria would not be a matter of making a few trips by helicopter. The country is an armed camp, and destroying or seizing stockpiles of chemical weapons is complicated and requires manpower. To destroy the stockpiles, you must first secure ports, airports and roads to get to them, and then you have to defend the roads, of which there are many.
Eradicating chemical weapons from Syria — assuming that they are all in al Assad’s territory — would require occupying that territory, and the precise outlines of that territory change from day to day. It is also likely, given the dynamism of a civil war, that some chemical weapons would fall into the hands of the Sunni insurgents. There are no airstrikes or surgical raids by special operations troops that would solve the problem. Like Iraq, the United States would have to occupy the country.
If al Assad and the leadership are removed, his followers — a substantial minority — will continue to resist, much as the Sunnis did in Iraq. They have gained much from the al Assad regime and, in their minds, they face disaster if the Sunnis win. The Sunnis have much brutality to repay. On the Sunni side, there may be a secular liberal democratic group, but if so it is poorly organized and control is in the hands of Islamists and other more radical Islamists, some with ties to al Qaeda. The civil war will continue unless the United States intervenes on behalf of the Islamists, uses its power to crush the Alawites and hands power to the Islamists. A variant of this happened in Iraq when the United States sought to crush the Sunnis but did not want to give power to the Shia. The result was that everyone turned on the Americans.
That will be the result of a neutral intervention or an intervention designed to create a constitutional democracy. Those who intervene will find themselves trapped between the reality of Syria and the assorted fantasies that occasionally drive U.S. and European foreign policy. No great harm will come in any strategic sense. The United States and Europe have huge populations and enormous wealth. They can, in that sense, afford such interventions. But the United States cannot afford continual defeats as a result of intervening in countries of marginal national interest, where it sets for itself irrational political goals for the war. In some sense, power has to do with perception, and not learning from mistakes undermines power.
Many things are beyond the military power of the United States. Creating constitutional democracies by invasion is one of those things. There will be those who say intervention is to stop the bloodshed, not to impose Western values. Others will say intervention that does not impose Western values is pointless. Both miss the point. You cannot stop a civil war by adding another faction to the war unless that faction brings overwhelming power to bear. The United States has a great deal of power, but not overwhelming power, and overwhelming power’s use means overwhelming casualties. And you cannot transform the political culture of a country from the outside unless you are prepared to devastate it as was done with Germany and Japan.
The United States, with its European allies, does not have the force needed to end Syria’s bloodshed. If it tried, it would merely be held responsible for the bloodshed without achieving any strategic goal. There are places to go to war, but they should be few and of supreme importance. The bloodshed in Syria is not more important to the United States than it is to the Syrians.