Paul Pillar

Intervention and End Games in Syria

The past week's events in Syria have hastened a sense that the end of Bashar al-Assad's regime is in sight. Those events have included a bombing at the heart of the regime's high command that killed several senior security officials, a surge in combat in Aleppo and Damascus, and other insurgent gains such as the seizure of several border-crossing points. Comments about the situation in Syria have been framed more pointedly over the past few days in terms of when, rather than if, Assad's regime will fall, with a quickly growing expectation that “when” means soon.

This fast-moving situation invites reconsideration of recommendations that have been made during the past few months about the policy of outsiders, especially the United States, toward the conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, most will perceive in the latest events support for the courses they earlier recommended. The most vocal expounders on the subject have agitated for doing something more in Syria than the United States has done to date, although ideas vary about what that something should be. This school of thought sees the latest developments in the conflict as all the more reason for the United States to get more involved in the action, with an additional push against Assad being even more likely than before to see quick results. The very fact that the anti-Assad resistance has gotten where it is today, however, can be read at least as plausibly as confirmation that it was wise for the United States not to have gotten involved any more deeply than it has. This latter perspective gains further credence when remembering the added longer-term burdens of such involvement; the Pottery Barn rule applies to those who actively participate in smashing apart an old regime—as Nikolas Gvosdev reminds us is the case with Libya. The use of a humanitarian rationale to cover a NATO regime-change operation in Libya also has entailed a cost relevant to the Syrian situation, in the form of vetoes in the United Nations Security Council by Russian and Chinese governments that believe they were snookered by the West on Libya and do not want to be snookered again.

Speaking of humanitarian intervention, Robert Pape offers in the newest International Security an interesting framework for thinking about the subject. Pape proposes a “pragmatic standard” for humanitarian intervention, as an alternative to what he regards as the overly stringent standard of demonstrated genocide and the overly broad one of “responsibility to protect.” Pape says foreign armed intervention is warranted when it is needed to stop “mass homicide,” when there is a low-cost intervention plan available and when there are promising conditions for being able to establish lasting security. It is a sensible set of criteria. Applying them to Syria, Pape says his standard is not met, mostly because as a matter of geography, demography, and the related balance of strength between regime and opposition, there is insufficient basis for outsiders to intervene effectively at low cost.

The most recent developments in Syria occurred after Pape wrote his article, in which he left open the possibility of Syria meeting his standard “if a large region broke away from the regime en masse.” Perhaps the conflict in Syria is close to getting to that point. It should be noted that Pape is talking about armed intervention and not necessarily about other measures outsiders might take short of sending in troops. We should also note that in Syria, as in Libya if not more so, the issue of outside intervention really has no more to do with humanitarianism than with regime change that a lot of people want to see for reasons beyond the immediate saving of lives. Pape's glossing over this fact as it relates to Libya, where he considers foreign intervention to have been justified, is a weakness in his analysis.

The Obama administration is approaching the current situation in Syria correctly insofar as it is bracing for an implosion of the existing political order there, thinking of the problem less as shoving Assad out even sooner than he would be going anyway and more as one of doing whatever outsiders can do to minimize any spread or fallout of chaos after he does fall. The opportunities for the United States to do much good in this regard may still be minimal. Doing good does not mean, as some recommend, trying to stage-manage the emergence of a new political order and picking winners and losers in it. The extreme, very-high-cost U.S. attempt to do that sort of thing in the Middle East—the war and occupation in Iraq—should have taught us how dim would be the prospects for success and how counterproductive would be most of the things we could try.

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