The Buzz

Morality and Consequences in Syria

As the body count in Syria rises, it is hard to shake the feeling that America must do something—anything—to stop the slaughter. Are we not the world’s “indispensable” nation? Do we not have a moral responsibility to act?

In a new policy brief for the Center for a New American Security, Marc Lynch urges us to restrain these impulses. Lynch rightly sets a high bar for military intervention, saying its advocates must demonstrate “not only that the cause is just but that the available military options would have a reasonable chance of improving the situation at an acceptable cost.” He then argues that none of the options for military action meet this standard. He focuses particular attention on the currently fashionable suggestion, put forth by certain senators and commentators of various political stripes, that Washington should arm Syria’s rebels. Lynch contends that this “will not necessarily close the military gap—it might simply lead to a bloodier conflict.” It would also “likely further divide the different opposition groups,” and “radically reduce the prospects for a ‘soft landing’ if and when Asad falls.”

What to do instead? Lynch advocates a strategy of “forceful diplomacy.” In short, he says, Washington should continue to isolate the Syrian government diplomatically and work to tighten international sanctions. Likewise, it should encourage defections by regime officials, counter the Assad regime’s propaganda and actively build unity among the disparate Syrian opposition groups.

This is deeply unsatisfying. Critics will no doubt respond that none of this will change anything, and they may well be right. Yet Lynch is not arguing that it will cause Assad to fall right away, but simply that it is the least bad option. We all want to believe that there is no problem America can’t solve, that there is a magic bullet for Syria’s woes. The simple fact, however, is that there is none. Lynch’s proposal offers some chance to nudge events in a positive direction, while avoiding the worst consequences of yet another U.S. military intervention in a turbulent region. It is a perceptive, realistic and smart analysis.