The Odds of a Successful Syrian Intervention

The Odds of a Successful Syrian Intervention

Kenneth Pollack's rigorous exposition of the Syrian civil war prompts questions about whether a U.S. intervention would succeed.


When one sees Kenneth M. Pollack’s byline at the top of an article, the smart thing is to plunge into its perusal. His "Outlook" article in Sunday’s Washington Post, on the true nature of the Syrian war and the challenge it represents for any nation that decides to intervene, is no exception.

Pollack, senior fellow at Brookings’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says the beginning of wisdom on this matter, as on any, is to call things by their right names. In doing that, he lays out a number of fundamental realities surrounding the ongoing Syrian tragedy.


First, it is an "all-out civil war"—and the worst kind of all-out civil war, an ethno-sectarian conflict. Such wars generate powerful forces that constrain what can be done about them. Second, such wars nearly always end in one of two ways: Either one side wins, "typically in murderous fashion"; or an outside force intervenes with enough force to "snuff out the fighting."

Thus (third), the unfolding violence in Syria is likely to continue for years unless the United States decides either to back the rebels decisively with money and materiel or to lead a serious intervention.

Fourth, these realities expose the futility in much of what has been done and proposed thus far. Efforts in behalf of a negotiated settlement, such as Kofi Annan’s mission as the U.N.-Arab League envoy, almost never succeed, as reflected in Annan’s own failed effort. Or consider the idea, embraced in recent weeks by many in and out of the U.S. government, of getting Russia to apply pressure on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down. This isn’t likely for the simple reason that Assad is fighting for his life, as are his supporters. Even if he somehow managed to escape to some serene exile (highly dubious, as he no doubt knows), another Alawite leader or someone from another minority group would rise up to continue the fight for survival.

Fifth, the opposition forces are likely to win eventually. The government has a big edge in heavy weapons, but the rebels have the numbers. Eventually, the government forces will run out of heavy weapons, and the conflict will boil down to numbers. Then the rebels will prevail.

But, sixth, that outcome is likely to be much different from the expectation among many in the West that a democratic spring will ensue. For one thing, the Alawites are likely to retreat to their mountainous homeland along Syria’s western coast, thus driving a wedge through the nation. Beyond that, the force likely to emerge from such a series of events would be the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—"an old, unreconstructed, hard-line, sectarian version—more like the Taliban." The result could be ominous not just for Syria but also for the entire region and hence the world.

Seventh (and finally), such a turn of events could unleash a "spillover effect," whereby the passions and killings of Syria spread to neighboring nations, unleashing instability throughout the Middle East.

Here’s where, in Pollack’s view, America’s vital national interests could come into play with such force that some kind of intervention could ultimately be undertaken. As he puts it:

At its worst, spillover from a civil war in one country can cause a civil war in another or can metastasize into a regional war. Sectarian violence is already spreading from Syria; Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan are all fragile states susceptible to civil war, even without the risk of contagion. Turkey and Iran are mucking around in Syria, supporting different sides. . . . Terrorism or increasing Iranian influence might pull even a reluctant Israel into the fray.

Thus, this kind of spillover could force Washington to contemplate real action in Syria. If it comes to that, the choice will be between "picking a winner and leading a multilateral [military] intervention." Most likely, Washington would begin with the former and then expand the effort to intervention if the first option fails to yield the desired results (as is likely).

Pollack takes care to avoid any overt advocacy in his article. He’s merely laying out the realities of the situation. And the realities he lays out certainly ring true. But he comes close to advocacy in discussing the intervention option, which would bring to bear "an outside force to suppress the warring groups and then build a stable political process that keeps the war from resuming." The military element—ending the fighting—is relatively easy, "as long as the intervening nation is willing to bring enough force and use the right tactics." Building a new, functional political system, on the other hand, is not easy at all. It requires tremendous resources and probably lots of time.

But, says Pollack, "if done right, it can even pave the way toward real democracy (as the United States started to do in Iraq before its withdrawal last year), which results in greater stability in the long run."

So here we see that the model for this kind of intervention is the U.S. invasion of Iraq—only with a greater military commitment than the eight years and nearly 4,500 military deaths consumed by that war. Pollack seems to be saying that Iraq could have been chalked up as a great U.S. success story of military intervention had the United States just stayed longer.

This may be true. But there’s no strong body of evidence supporting that view. And neither is there any compelling reason to believe that a similar intervention in Syria will yield results much different from the failed effort to build democracy in Iraq. Indeed, an intervention designed to thwart a spillover effect could in fact generate a spillover of instability in neighboring countries, as anti-Western sentiment explodes over yet another Western incursion upon the soil of Islam.

Pollack’s concise and rigorous exposition of the realities underlying the brutal events of Syria represents one of the best such descriptions to be found anywhere. He is not wrong when he suggests that events there could undermine American interests to such an extent that an intervention would emerge as a matter of necessity. Whether such an effort could really ever succeed is another matter entirely. And in the meantime, there is no reason to contemplate such a U.S. initiative. Given current circumstances and the country’s national interests, American blood is too precious to be expended on such a thing.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster).

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