The Syrian civil war is not just a humanitarian crisis. There are also important strategic considerations—including Iran and other regional players like Turkey—that must be considered.
The past year has seen the slow-motion slaughter of many Syrians. Assad has carefully avoided the destruction of large populations. The world’s response has been countless international gatherings asserting sympathy for the Syrian opposition, feeble efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and the thunder of imprecations, mostly American, that skewer the Russians but pass little ammunition or other help to the besieged opposition. Once again, another UN resolution is under consideration to bring the Chinese and Russians around to a cease fire, while a tireless Kofi Annan is asked to produce his quiet magic as if Syria were Kenya.
The deepening humanitarian crisis is generating more militant proposals: significant support to the opposition, including the establishment of humanitarian zones and the direct provision of more arms and training. While welcome to the opposition, these zones would require the protection of outside military forces and do little to change the situation except by lowering the intensity of some fighting. And these measures have little support. Policy makers are concerned that such efforts will generate mayhem and civil war in Syria—as if what they are witnessing were not a civil war, or perhaps just a minor one. We seem to console ourselves with the notion that Assad’s fall is inevitable, that his Russian and Chinese friends will grow tired of isolation and embarrassment, and we can stand back knowing that right will ultimately triumph. The Syrian people will just have to suffer a little more.
Perhaps Washington believes Assad’s end is indeed close, and therefore a serious American military effort is unnecessary. That does not look likely from the latest fighting—nor from the increasing Congressional pressures to take aggressive military measures and the administration’s request for military options from the Pentagon.
The Post-Assad Region
The notion of a more serious and concerted U.S.-led military option to end Assad’s rule understandably has received little attention so far. Many fear it would deepen the existing civil war and spread disorder to other countries. There would, of course, be significant costs to such an operation—probably more than Washington bargains for. This is not another Kosovo war with no casualties, which gave Americans misleading notions about American power. Syria has air defenses whose destruction would be costly at a time when the United States is trying to reduce defense expenditures. And it would involve U.S. forces in a war of uncertain duration that they do not want.
A Syrian intervention would not be Iraq redux. But it would require something Americans are not very good at—bringing the various Syrian parties together (no mean problem with their strong sectarian differences) to help create a post-Assad world. Nor is a new Syria likely to be a short-term burden; the law of unintended consequences inevitably prevails in war. It would also be a terrible political problem for the Obama administration.
A military attack on Syria would need the whole-hearted political and material support of Turkey and Arab states. That is by no means assured. Until a year ago, the Turkish government romanced Assad. Now, it is at the forefront of trying to get rid of him, but it has done little to make that happen other than promoting international support, accepting refugees and providing a haven for Syrian opposition leaders. In a potential toppling of Assad, Turkey would need to establish a protected zone in Syria for the opposition and those fleeing any fighting. The Turkish government, however, is not enthusiastic about a military effort in Syria; it would not have a UN imprimatur or support of the Turkish public. The politically besieged Turkish military is averse to invading an Arab country and concerned that a Syrian Kurdish entity might emerge from Syria’s internal disorder.
Arab support, particularly the Saudis, who talk much about supplying arms to the opposition but apparently do little, is also politically indispensable. It is not clear that support would be available, and the Arabs could well split.
Nevertheless, there are ample reasons for considering a dramatically different approach, and not only for humanitarian reasons. A Syrian intervention might help with a larger and pressing Iranian problem by removing its chief client and regional ally from the scene. Strategically, Washington would send a far tougher message to the Iranian leadership to halt their nuclear-weapon aspirations than any it has delivered to date.
To have this effect on Iran, President Obama must first send an unmistakable message to Assad: unless he is prepared to give up power, his government will be destroyed. Such a military effort cannot win UN approval and requires a coalition of the willing. Once again the U.S. military would be indispensable in doing the fighting—the destruction by air of many of Assad’s key facilities and his ability to manage a continuing war, rather than simply enabling and equipping the opposition to Assad.
Iran likely believes this kind of an American-led attack on Syria will not happen. An attack on Syria, however, could constitute a truly defining moment for the much bigger Iranian nuclear issue. Tehran would find it highly difficult to intervene directly in Syria and would face a humiliating loss and greater isolation in the region. It would be a huge political shock with possibly vast internal repercussions.
How Iran would respond is obviously uncertain. But the United States should consider the opportunity to change the regional dynamics in a way that might end or put off the nuclear issue and create domestic upheaval in Iran. One cannot preclude that an U.S. attack on Syria would harden Iran’s dedication to developing nuclear weapons. But though it would be hard to propose and defend, the United States would be starting a war in Syria in part to prevent a far bigger war with uncertain but immense consequences. There seems little doubt that it would result in two desirable outcomes for U.S. strategy: hastening the end of the Syrian conflict and creating a new climate for negotiating the stalemate with Iran.
Realistically, all these considerations may need to be put on the back burner for now. It’s likely that it will take a lot more violence in Syria to generate a military effort. No matter that an intervention would sever Iran’s Syria connection—and end a growing humanitarian nightmare.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member of The National Interest's advisory council
Image: Freedom House