The Case for Intervening in Syria

The chorus out of Washington is singing a familiar hymn: Don't get involved in Syria. Civil war is upon us. "Syria is Iraq," proclaims Thomas Friedman, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning portrayal of the horrific 1982 massacre in Hama is what inspired my generation of journalists to travel to places like Syria and Lebanon.

This kind of analysis is strange and counter-cyclical. Syria is not Iraq, it is Iraq in reverse. It is Iraq in slow-motion, done without U.S. firepower or Dick Cheney. First, the obvious: We are not countering insurgents but rather we are abetting insurgents (albeit indirectly through the CIA and third-party channels). We literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency as a result of our efforts in Iraq. Now it is the Assad regime that is trying to clear, hold and build urban areas, not us. We haven't been in the business of aiding insurgents since Kosovo and Libya, and before that we trained anti-Marxist guerrillas in Latin America and the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. In short, our track record is bad but getting better. Second, we are silently applauding suicide bombings, like the one that killed Assad's brother-in-law and defense minister (no civilians were killed and the two men were military actors and thus legitimate targets). Finally we are aiming to take out a Baathist regime but not through shock and awe and overwhelming airpower but rather through an indigenous grassroots rebellion that is slow, methodical, and messy -- imagine what may have occurred in Saddam's Iraq had the Shia rebellion after the first Gulf War unfolded.

Iraq is the wrong frame of reference for Syria. Iraq was a war of choice, not a humanitarian intervention. We should instead be examining past humanitarian interventions, like the no-fly zones we imposed on northern Iraq, Kosovo and Libya. Even if none of the above led to Jeffersonian democracies overnight, they did stop major violence and saved lives. It is a myth that we simply cannot act because the Russians are somehow blocking a Chapter VII Security Council resolution to permit the use of force. That did not stop us before in the Balkans. As Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, correctly notes, "[I]t is time for a moratorium on the use of the phrase 'international community' in situations such as this one where no such consensus exists." Let's also be honest: Russia's ties to Syria are overblown. Arms sales to Syria are a meager 6 percent of Russian arms sales budget. The Russians barely even use their warm-water port at Tartus, which according to Fareed Zakaria is "in complete disrepair." The last remaining Russian legacy in Aleppo is its hideously wide Moscow-like boulevards, which are being overturned by a German urban-planning NGO to make the city more tourist-friendly and less Soviet-looking. As Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest put it. "[The Obama administration is] using Russia as a whipping boy, to blame on Russia what the Obama administration does not quite want to do itself."

Another myth is that we cannot intervene because we do not know who the opposition are (to paraphrase Henry Kissinger's line about Cold War-era Europe, "Who do I call if I want to call the Syrian rebels?"). But opposition movements are almost never united. If a totally united opposition was the litmus test for outside intervention, France would never have intervened on our side in the Revolutionary War, Gaddafi would still be surrounded by buxom bodyguards, and Kosovo would still be smothered in Cyrillic. Also within opposition movements there are always extremist elements we may not like. In early 1998, the U.S. envoy to the Balkans called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) a "terrorist group." Fifteen months later we were bombing Belgrade. Or take Libya, whose opposition was anything but unified. It was riven by mass tribal tensions (remember the killing of Abdel Fatah Younis, Gaddafi's former interior minister and erstwhile rebel leader?). There was widespread speculation that Islamist extremists, both foreign and domestic, were threatening to unravel the opposition. As Secretary of State Clinton said in March 2011, arming the rebels was difficult ''because of the unknowns'' about who they were, their backgrounds and motivations.

Another myth surrounding intervention is that a post-Assad Syria will inevitably erupt into civil war. Perhaps. After all, there are sectarian tensions, and the longer this part of the revolt plays out, the worse it will be after Assad falls. But a transitional regime can keep the lid on sectarian violence. Alawites are a small minority of the population, and so the key will be to contain revenge killings or retributive violence. They will be forced to form coalitions in a post-Assad government. Turkey and other neighbors also have a vested interest in not seeing more refugees flowing across its border and so a civil war can be contained with the help of outside powers. Similar predictions that Libya would erupt into anarchy after Gaddafi fell have (knock on wood) not proven true. A tautological argument made is we shouldn't aid the rebels because they cannot hold any territory or cities for more than a day. But the precise reason they cannot hold any territory is not for want of popular support but because of our own lack of support.

A final point made by those against intervention is that Syria's defenses are not Libya's. I disagree. Syria's defenses are mostly Soviet-age and not capable of withstanding a modern air assault. While some of its strategic air-defense systems have been upgraded (e.g. SA-2 and SA-3 medium-rangle surface-to-air missile launchers), according to Brian Haggerty of MIT, "it continues to rely on a large number of aging Soviet-designed systems." Haggerty says Syria's systems are almost the "same types of systems that made up the bulk of Serb and Libyan air defenses on the eve of NATO counterair operations, and are thus presumably vulnerable to the same mix of cruise missiles, electronic countermeasures, and high-speed anti-radiation missiles used to suppress or destroy those systems." Syria's army is also over-hyped. As the International Crisis Group reported last fall, "the security services... far from being a privileged, praetorian elite corps, are predominantly composed of underpaid and overworked Alawites hailing from villages the regime has left in a state of abject underdevelopment." The same report indicates that Assad's army, "poorly trained, ill-equipped and lacking esprit de corps," is "weak and divided" on purpose -- to prevent it from carrying out a coup. Syria's pilots are also poorly trained. "Deficiencies associated with Syria's outdated hardware would only be compounded by its pilots' lack of adequate training," writes Haggerty. "There is little evidence that the Syrian Air Force conducts the kind of realistic training on a scale that would be required to defend Syrian air space from a NATO campaign." Yes, Syria possesses a huge stockpile of chemical weapons it has said it would use against foreign invaders. But Israel's air force was able to take out an alleged nascent nuclear facility at Deir al-Zour in 2007 with barely a peep of protest or blowback. Though not without risk, a similar prolonged campaign of targeting these facilities could render these stockpiles non-operational. (Also recall that during the 1982 air war over Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Israel's air force downed 82 Syrian aircraft; Syria shot down zero of Israel's.)

So what should be done? I propose a hammer-and-anvil type of intervention that creates safe zones in Syria's northwest defended from the air (this notion that air power is not being used by the Syrian army may no longer hold, given reports of air strikes against rebel targets in Aleppo and elsewhere), as well as a humanitarian corridor between the Turkish border and Homs. This kind of intervention will require several months to see results and, as General Martin Dempsey testified last March before Congress, "a great deal of aircraft." (The general, however, did add that "the military option should be considered.") Most of Syria's modern aircraft appear to be based in only a few airfields (though the open-source information we have is limited), which along with its chemical weapons facilities, should be given top priority. This would require support from NATO allies such as Turkey. But it would not require a UNSC resolution, and so in the eyes of the world, to paraphrase Richard Goldstone's take on Kosovo, the intervention would be "illegal but legitimate." It might also have the support of most Americans, according to a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which found that a majority of those surveyed supported imposing a no-fly zone (though 72 percent were against bombing its anti-air defenses). This kind of operation would not be without risks, but nor would it require years of nation-building. Yes, Syria is larger population-wise than Libya but, contrary to Friedman, Syria is not Iraq circa 2003. It is not a war of choice, it is a humanitarian intervention. We would not "own" Syria because we would not be breaking it (just how nobody thinks we own Libya right now).

For Washington's armchair generals to sit back and wait for the Assad regime to fall is a fool's errand. Like it or not, we are going to have to get involved in Syria one way or the other. Better to intervene on our own terms, overtly, and while it's still "early," to be on the right side of history and give us greater negotiating leverage with the Sunni regime that displaces Assad (which, let's face it, will inevitably be more pro-Islamist). We should also intervene because this is one of those rare and magical moments in history when we can reconfigure the balance of power in the wider region to ours and Israel's favor. Assad's downfall will weaken Iran and strengthen the pro-democracy social movement that began in early 2011.

But mainly we should intervene because we would be saving lives, and it's the right -- and American -- thing to do, as Obama spelled out in his speeches in Cairo and Oslo. We would be lending support to an emerging legal norm called the "responsibility to protect" (R2P), which supersedes state sovereignty in international law. Moreover, there appears to be some agreement among those who study interventions that the sooner the intervention, the greater likelihood for success. Scott Straus argued that an intervention in Rwanda (provided it was early enough) would have prevented violence by strengthening the hand of moderates and providing security, thus taking away one of the purported drivers of violence on the ground: self-defense. War crimes occur during times of confusion and instability, whereby the balance of power overwhelmingly favors one side. Interventions can thus calm the situation on the ground and tip the balance of power favorably toward the victimized group, thereby allaying fears and reducing violence. Sure, there are unintended consequences to any humanitarian intervention, even with the halo of R2P norms. Alan Kuperman, for instance, argues that R2P can perpetuate violence by raising expectations of outside interventions and thereby lower the costs of rebellion, thus creating a classic moral hazard problem. This kind of risky behavior is no doubt self-evident in Syria today. In a perfect world, interventions do help the underdogs, but often the use of force is too late or too weak to be of much help or prevent retaliation against civilians (see Bosnia). To be sure, some level of sectarian violence and refugee crisis may be inevitable after Assad falls -- but the longer that this one-sided bloodbath continues, the costlier Syria will be down the road for its neighbors and for Western powers. That is because violence begets violence. The amount of parochial revenge killings, sectarian fighting, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will be far worse if we let Assad's militias run rough-shod over towns like Homs and Houla. If examples in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, or even Hama in 1982 are any indication, regimes run by delusional strongmen will not hesitate to use overwhelming force to put down rebellions. So let's put to rest this notion that we should stay on the sidelines because intervening will hasten a civil war. Intervening will prevent thousands more innocent civilians from being killed. If we do nothing, then we have as much blood on our hands as the Russians (and Chinese), and Obama should be forced to give back his Nobel Peace Prize.