The West and especially the United States are still paying a price for the messy habit of conflating regime change with other objectives, even the laudable objective of saving lives. Last October, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. The Russians in particular made it clear they were determined not to fall again for what they regarded as a bait and switch on Libya, in which a NATO military intervention that received multilateral support on humanitarian grounds quickly morphed into support for toppling the Libyan regime. Last Saturday saw a replay at the Security Council: another resolution on Syria, and another double veto by Russia and China. It's not as if the Russians and Chinese are throwing vetoes around with abandon these days. The vetoes on the Syria resolutions are four of only five vetoes that have been cast at the council in the last couple of years (the United States used the other one a year ago against a resolution criticizing continued Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territories). Despite efforts to word the most recent resolution on Syria in a way that would assuage Russian and Chinese concerns, all the talk about seeing the backside of Bashar al-Assad, in addition to the experience with Libya, makes it easy to see why Moscow and Beijing were still not buying.
The crisis in Syria is certainly a difficult case, and I do not pretend to have an attractive alternative strategy for dealing with it. But any policy ought at a minimum to satisfy a couple of criteria that too often have been overlooked. One is to consider carefully the broader, indirect follow-on effects of any action being proposed, whether military or diplomatic. Another is to be clear about the objectives we intend to achieve. Clarity is required not just to avoid annoying the Russians but also to have a good sense of whether our objectives are likely to be achievable and do not contradict each other. This is especially important when the mix includes regime change, which is the strongest possible deal-killer for whatever regime is to be changed.
Maybe there is something about humanitarian motivations tugging at heartstrings that muddies thinking, but we have been seeing a lot of it lately on Syria. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has contributed far-reaching analysis on topics such as the war in Afghanistan and the effects of foreign military occupation on terrorist motivations, but he takes a much narrower perspective in an op-ed in the New York Times. The situation in Syria leads Pape to mull over whether there ought to be a humanitarian standard for outside military intervention short of stopping an ongoing genocide. He decides that military intervention in Syria is not warranted for now, but he bases that judgment only on slender operational grounds. He refers to several earlier military interventions made ostensibly in the name of humanitarianism, including NATO's effort in Libya, as successes. Such a judgment about Libya is questionable and not only because it is doubtful that the widely assumed mass slaughter of innocents by the regime would ever have occurred in the absence of intervention. The continuing messiness in Libya has included atrocities on the anti-Qaddafi side. Most important, the Western intervention to topple a ruler with whom a deal had been reached that got him out of international terrorism and ended his programs to produce weapons of mass destruction has sent the worst possible message to other regimes with which the West has had similar concerns. We are seeing some of the negative consequences now with Iran and North Korea. As for effects on Syria, the handling of Qaddafi not only encouraged the lack of cooperation from Russia and China but also set an unattractive example for Assad and his supporters.
I agree with Pape that intervention in Syria would be unwise, but not just for now and not only because the struggle there has so far not shaped up in a way that has yielded, as he puts it, “a viable, low-casualty military solution.” Sectarian divisions in Syria would make the aftermath of even a low-cost regime-toppling intervention messier than Libya. The whole Alawite power structure, not just Assad and his family, would see themselves fighting not only for power but for their lives. Stirring this sectarian pot would, as happened with the Iraq War, set in motion more disturbances elsewhere in the region.
The United States should refrain from any such pot stirring and concentrate on areas in the region where its own current policies already are tipping the scales and associating the United States with local clients. Major aid recipients are a good place to look, and there are an obvious couple of such places where the aid raises questions of abetting behavior that is damaging, for human rights or other reasons. One place to start is the $1.3 billion in annual aid to a military-controlled Egypt that has recently subjected American officials of prodemocracy organizations to criminal investigation and barred them from leaving the country.