The pressure on the Obama administration to take military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has eased somewhat with news today that preliminary findings from a U.N. investigating team indicate that the rebels, not the government, used chemical weapons.
President Obama indicated months ago that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in its bloody civil war would be a "red line," triggering unspecified military action. When the administration announced last month that some intelligence suggested the possible use of the nerve agent sarin, advocates of U.S. intervention howled with renewed calls for bombing the Syrian regime and arming the rebel opposition.
Carla Del Ponte, a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a current member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that testimony gathered by U.N. human rights researchers reveals "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas."
"This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," Del Ponte added.
This is likely to ease the political pressure on a reluctant Obama administration for direct military action in Syria: the alleged use of chemical weapons is only useful to "humanitarian interventionists" if it is deployed by the Syrian regime.
But even without this latest news from U.N. investigators, further involvement in Syria's intractable conflict would be an unmitigated disaster. The U.S. lacks feasible military options in Syria, has no legal authority to intervene, and would in all likelihood worsen the humanitarian situation on the ground while embroiling the United States in a costly, protracted Middle Eastern war.
Israel's recent bombing of Syrian-held weapons headed for Hezbollah has prompted claims that the Assad regime's air defenses are not as capable as previously thought. But an Israeli sneak-attack doesn't accurately reflect the how the Syrian regime would react to an extended U.S. bombing campaign.
Imposing a no-fly zone, the favored military option of interventionists like John McCain, would require destroying the regime's anti-aircraft capabilities, many of which are located in urban areas. This is likely to put more civilians at risk.
And if a no-fly zone were imposed, it would quickly turn into a mandate to topple the Syrian regime, as it did in Libya against the Gadhafi regime. But no one should be under any illusions that the fighting would magically stop in a post-Assad Syria. The resulting power vacuum would probably trigger a descent into ethno-sectarian civil war on the order of post-Saddam Iraq, in which 650,000 people died, according to some estimates.
Advocates of intervention claim the escalating humanitarian crisis in Syria necessitates U.S. action to mitigate the suffering. But such action is far more likely to exacerbate the misery.
As Prof. Eva Bellin and Prof. Peter Krause in the Middle East Brief from Brandeis University found in their study of the Syria situation, "The distillation of historical experience with civil war and insurgency, along with a sober reckoning of conditions on the ground in Syria, make clear that limited intervention of this sort will not serve the moral impulse that animates it. To the contrary, it is more likely to amplify the harm that it seeks to eliminate by prolonging a hurting stalemate."
In Senate testimony last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said "military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment."
He added: "Military intervention could have the unintended consequence of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict or proxy war."
Beyond the immense cost in blood and treasure, the negative consequences of a proxy war in Syria would be an order of magnitude worse given the nature of the rebel fighters.
The efforts of Jordan, the Gulf states, and the Obama administration to arm and train moderate elements of the Syrian rebels is an exercise in futility. As has been reported for months, al-Qaeda offshoots in the Syrian opposition like Jabhat al-Nusra are the rebels' main fighting force. The major gains of the rebel fighters in the past year can largely be attributed to these jihadists: they are the best armed, most well trained, and fiercest battalions around. This partly explains why the bulk of the rebels, jihadists or not, have repeatedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic extremists.
Advocates of intervention like to claim that there are at least some rebels of an acceptable caliber, who haven't committed crimes, don't have ties to terrorist groups, and want a secular political transition post-Assad. But realists don't buy it.
"Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of," The New York Times recently reported.
The NATO bombing campaign in Libya ended up bolstering al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, destabilized neighboring Mali, and, in the words of a Libyan intelligence official speaking to The Daily Beast, "Libya has become AQIM's headquarters."
There isn't much guesswork involved in assessing the consequences of boosting arms deliveries to the rebels. It has already been happening, through Saudi Arabia and Qatar with coordination from the CIA. The result has been an emboldened jihad and stalemate.
"Syria indeed has become an arena for outside meddling, but the meddling has been far more effective at sustaining the fighting than ending it," said a report last year from the International Crisis Group.
"A continuous supply of weapons to both sides--whether from Russia, Iran or the Gulf States--only maintains the parties' perception that fighting is a better option than negotiating," Dr. Florence Gaub, a researcher at the NATO Defense College, writes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "This explains why, in terms of statistical probability, an external supply of weapons lengthens a civil war."
If people are interested in alleviating the suffering of Syrians, clearly they should be advocating less intervention, not more.
The reality is, humanitarian motivations are not driving calls for war in Syria. If the motivation was purely civilian suffering, there would be just as many calls to intervene in the Congo, where millions were killed from 1998 to 2008, and tens of thousands are still dying.
Syria is strategically located in the Middle East, is geographically a close neighbor of Israel and a close ally of Iran. President Bashar al-Assad is a client of the Russians who value their last close ally in the region because it affords them geo-political influence and a chance to defy U.S. imperialism. And this is what drives calls for intervention.
As Rep. Marco Rubio, one of the leading voices in Congress advocating U.S. intervention, said last year in a video message to his constituents: war in Syria is "in our national security interest" because Iran has "no stronger ally in the world than Syria" and "the loss of the Assad regime in Syria is the single, most damaging thing that can happen to Iran's regime."
Using the humanitarian strife in Syria as a pretext to fulfill future plans for U.S. aggression against Iran should be recognized for what it is: naked imperialism and a grave violation of international law.
The sectarian conflict now going on in Syria is a belated result of the historical legacy of European imperialism in the Middle East. At the end of World War I, the Allied victors divided up the spoils of the fallen Ottoman Empire, drawing lines in the sand and imposing arbitrary regimes to serve their own selfish interests. Instability and strife have plagued the region ever since.
Prior to the end of the war, the Russian Imperial Chancellor, Prince Gorchakov, hoping to gobble up most of the Middle East for himself, tried to warn the Western powers against expanding their empires into the region.
Gorchakov pointed out that "the United States in America, France in Algiers, Holland in her colonies, all have been drawn into a course where ambition plays a smaller role than imperious necessity, and the greatest difficulty is knowing where to stop."
How much more blood, American and Syrian, are we really willing to spill by taking military action in a civil conflict that doesn't threaten our security or interests? How many trillions of dollars from our beleaguered economy are we willing to extract to pay for another drawn-out nation-building project in the Middle East?
After more than a decade of elective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's supposed imperial necessities in Syria must be suppressed, and an intervention avoided, at all costs.