In March 2012, I wrote a blog post for Security Center, the blog of my former home – the Center for National Policy. In it, I criticize “loose talk on intervention in Syria” as represented by Anne Marie Slaughter, Stephen Hadley, and Max Boot – all of whom were calling for some sort of American intervention on behalf of the armed Syrian opposition.
What has changed in the last 13 months? The death toll went from less than 10,000 to over 70,000. The number of Syrian refugees went from about 34,000 to about 1 million. As predicted by many, the jihadist faction of the armed opposition has increased enormously in size and power. The Assad regime has lost control over much of Syria, but remains entrenched and committed to survival.
What is America doing? The Obama Administration has called Assad’s fall inevitable and has sought to work with the Syrian political opposition. Various American intelligence and military assets are said to be coordinating with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – all of whom are arming and financing the Syrian resistance – while not conducting (to the best of my knowledge) any military operations on Syrian soil or over Syrian airspace with or in support the Free Syrian Army. In the words of a White House spokesman, there is no U.S. “lethal aid” going to the Syrian opposition, but there are rumors (denied by the Pentagon) of Syrian rebels being trained by U.S. military personnel in Jordan. The U.S. is supplying humanitarian aid – covertly and overtly – in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and perhaps elsewhere.
But what has changed strategically? Should those who – like me – professed intervention skepticism on realist grounds change their assessment? Has the rising human cost in and of itself over-powered realist arguments? Should Europe and the U.S. join Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and openly arm the rebels? Should we get on “the right side of history” (if there is such a thing)? Should Western states intervene militarily? Should the United States lead such an intervention? I have no easy answer for you, loyal KoW readers. I know what I think, but I am more interested in what you think and why. I especially encourage current War Studies M.A. students to chime in, immersed as they (surely) are in the literature. Maybe some of them are even writing their dissertations on the Syrian civil war.
So, I ask you to read my 13-month old blog post, see how it holds up, consider the hard questions it asks (from a U.S. perspective if possible), and tell us in the comments section what you think.
Loose Talk on Intervention in Syria
13 March 2012
There is a lot of loose talk on intervention in Syria. Various commentators, government officials – former and current, and analysts are calling for some sort of US military involvement in the blooming civil war between the Alawite Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Recommendations range from arming the opposition to providing special operations and air support. Many of their arguments make a compelling moral case for intervention. Some even provide an operational framework for what military support for the FSA might look like. The trouble is, very few advocates of intervention have taken the time to:
(a) Provide a strategic rationale for intervention based on US interests,
(b) Identify what circumstances would merit a commitment that would place American military lives at risk,
(c) Explain the criteria for disengagement if the conflict endures beyond our expectations,
(d) Explain how the likely alternatives to Assad will be better for the United States.
(e) Explain what success looks like and what comes next .
Important questions like these were laid out in 1995 when Col. John Collins (ret.) penned a useful tool for policymakers and military planners for Parameters called “Military Intervention: A Checklist of Key Considerations.” It proposes a list of key considerations and questions for whether, where, when, and how the US should or should not intervene militarily. My proposition is it would be irresponsible to commit American blood and treasure without ticking every box on Col. Collins’ checklist.
The gauntlet has been thrown.
There have been three prominent advocates of military intervention: Anne Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning for President Obama’s US State Department; Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s National Security Advisor; and Max Boot, a well-regarded commentator and military analyst.
Dr. Slaughter, the champion of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, focuses on the “how” and not the “why.” She argues, “Foreign military intervention in Syria offers the best hope for curtailing a long, bloody and destabilizing civil war.” Due to Syria’s strategic significance due to its location, a long civil war would be dangerous to American interests. This is an important point and one that Dr. Slaughter should have spent a few more convincing sentences on. She goes on to advocate arming the opposition, but notes that doing this alone runs the risk of fueling “a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines.” In order to avoid this, she proposes the supplementary measures of establishing “no-kill zones” with the FSA near the Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders, as well as sending in special forces from Qatar, Turkey, and possibly Britain and France. Collectively, these efforts will somehow keep this war contained and force the Assad regime into a truce.
Aside from the minefields involved in building the coalition, implementing this campaign, and creating the safe zones (among other things, how would we protect these safe zones without soldiers on the ground?), the biggest weakness of Dr. Slaughter’s argument is its lack of a defined end-state, or some criteria that would merit either further U.S. involvement or a withdrawal. This truce is entirely aspirational. What if it does not happen and the war drags on? It is also far from clear how Dr. Slaughter’s proposals would forestall a larger sectarian war.
Mr. Hadley rests his argument firmly on moral grounds: The Syrian non-violent protestors and armed rebels are displaying remarkable courage in their quest for freedom. The US must provide support, in the form of arms, in order to create “a stable, democratic Syria in which all sectarian communities feel secure and strive together to build a common future.” America should take the lead in rallying the international community to provide political and support and a concrete plan for the reconstruction of a post-Assad Syria. If the US waits too long, al Qaeda will be more likely to subvert the rebellion and thrive on chaos and violence in Syria.
Of all people, a former US National Security Advisor should be able to present a cogent case for intervention based on strategy and American interests. Instead, Mr. Hadley does not stray far from a morality play and playing on familiar themes that failed to translate into an effective foreign policy during the Bush Administration. When dreaming of a democratic Syria with inter-sectarian harmony, he betrays amnesia of the last nine years of conflict in Iraq. During his most recent time in the White House, Hadley and his colleagues expressed the same dreams – dreams that evaporated in the face of poor planning and sectarian death squads. If Iraq and the Balkans have taught us anything, it is that while dictatorships are intolerably repressive, morally repugnant systems, they tend to keep a lid on simmering sectarian tensions. And when that lid is lifted, the stability of the dictator doesn’t look quite so terrible by comparison.
Mr. Boot accuses President Obama of making a “strategic blunder” for refusing to order air strikes in Syria and arm the FSA. He is clearly an advocate of military operations, but does not explain how this would serve American interests, what the targeting criteria should be for airstrikes, how and under what circumstances the US should end military operations if a brutal civil war continues without a decisive end, etc. According to recent intelligence assessments, the Syrian regime is more resilient than many observers have argued.
Boot does, however, provide one strategic explanation: toppling the Assad regime would cut off Iran’s primary avenue for projecting its malign influence into the Levant. Perhaps, but Iran does not only give arms to Hizballah through and over Syria. There are sea and air routes that avoid Syria. Moreover, Hizballah has a strong base of support in Southern Lebanon and is already flush with arms. And is it worth risking enduring civil war, instability, or an unpredictable future government to possibly weaken Hizballah? Would removing Iran’s only ally in the region strengthen or weaken their resolve to get a nuclear weapon?
For the sake of argument, let’s say that all of these advocates of military intervention are right: we should take active military steps to topple Assad and we should do it now. But what happens if we succeed? The U.S. military estimates that it would take 75,000 troops just to secure Syrian chemical weapons facilities. How many would it take to stabilize the country?
We need to think this through.
The people of Syria have my strongest sympathies, but the United States remains over-stretched and completely uncertain as to how the “Arab Spring” is transforming the Middle East and America’s place in it. When examining who is likely to take control of Syria if Assad is overthrown, I cannot help but worry that a democratic and stable Syria is just a dream. A nice one, but still a dream.
Until advocates of intervention are able to provide cogent answers to Col. Collins’ questions, I remain unconvinced.
Now sound off in the comments section.