The Folly of 'Going Big' in Syria

March 9, 2012 Topic: Humanitarian InterventionSecurity Region: SyriaMiddle East Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Folly of 'Going Big' in Syria

How do you solve a problem like Syria? Torn between aversion to involvement in another Middle Eastern quagmire and the impulse to halt the horrific violence, many now advocate middle-of-the-road positions. Two such “half-measures” have received the most support: arming Syria’s rebels and creating safe havens for the opposition.

In Thursday’s New York Times, Jonathan Tepperman blasts these ideas and the concept of “piecemeal intervention” more broadly. “Partial measures,” he argues, “risk turning a small local conflict into a far messier regional war.” Since “doing something small may be worse than doing nothing,” he says, “the West should go in big or stay home.”

Leaving aside Tepperman’s oddly cavalier tone, which seems better suited to a frat house than an op-ed addressing a major international-security issue, he is right that such half measures are flawed. He notes that “merely arming the rebels is unlikely to end the conflict, and could well fuel the fire,” citing the rebels’ lack of unity and the hostile, divided nature of Syria. Safe havens without Western support, he writes, “risk being overrun by hostile forces” and “could become bases of operations for rebels fighting outside the safe zones.”

But Tepperman applies the same flawed reasoning he criticizes. He says that half measures do not address the “central question” of who should rule Syria. His answer—that the West should “start a serious military operation to topple the government”—fails just as spectacularly to answer this concern. Having already admitted that Washington’s “understanding of [the opposition’s] composition and ideology is largely based on guesswork,” he seems to be suggesting that we oust Assad and hope for the best.

His tactical approach is also problematic. As he eviscerates the concept of half-in interventions, he advocates “a Libya-style coalition air campaign [that] shouldn’t require many boots on the ground.” This approach is undoubtedly preferable to an Iraq-style occupation, but his hedging seems hypocritical. If his point is that would-be interveners can’t predict how quickly the conflict could escalate, isn’t that true whether they are creating safe havens or launching drones? This double standard makes his argument deeply flawed.