The Clumsy Case for U.S. Intervention in Syria

October 27, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: SyriaRussiaInterventionDefenseSyrian Civil War

The Clumsy Case for U.S. Intervention in Syria

What crucial U.S. interests are at risk in Syria?

It’s implied that these actions would lead Assad to negotiate a lasting cease-fire. But whether that’s true is the real question. If anything, Allen and Lister’s essay suggests it might not be: statements like “Russia has shown a remarkable capacity to dig in behind bad policy and fight under adversity” create doubts that even high costs imposed directly on Russia would work.

And credibility of the sort Press was talking about—power and interests—is key in coercive warfare. The Russians certainly have credibility in Syria; they’ve invested treasure and even a little blood in defending Assad. Compare that to our side: even intervention advocates emphasize the use of indirect force via proxies or very limited direct force (words like “unbelievably small,” “targeted” and “pinprick” are common). And those who do call for direct force tend to favor using standoff weapons that don’t put American forces in harm’s way. But as Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain observed in the National Interest in July:

It is precisely because such instruments are relatively cheap and easy for the United States to employ that they will fail to convince the Syrian regime and other actors to come to the table, because they signal to the parties on the ground that the United States is not highly motivated to change the targets’ behavior. If it were, the United States would be willing to opt for a much more costly and risky instrument.

We would be, in other words, proclaiming our unwillingness to escalate. If that is our goal, our prior actions in Syria have been sufficient. If anything, the preferences revealed by U.S. and Russian behavior in Syria suggest that the Russians would be more willing to tolerate escalation, and thus that the United States would be forced to blink first in a crisis. This would hardly show America to be “the leader and defender of the free world.”

Taking these dynamics into account, an effective intervention would rest on a view that the United States is so much stronger than Syria that even a low-cost, low-risk effort would still compel Syria to change course, and that Russia, in spite of the balance of interests, would not call our bluff by imposing costs and risks that overshadow our limited stake in Syria. Advocates of an intervention have yet to show that this is plausible.

John Allen Gay is executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society, a national network of student groups centered on a vision of foreign policy restraint. He is a former managing editor of the National Interest.

Image Credit: Office of the President, Russian Federation.