Syria's simmering sectarian tensions and increasingly extreme rebel movement make even a large-scale U.S. intervention unlikely to restore stability to the country.
Stephen Zunes, last updated: May 15, 2013
Foreign Policy In Focus
The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left policymakers scrambling to think of ways the United States could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to “do something” has led to increasing calls for the United States to provide military aid to armed insurgents or even engage in direct military intervention, especially in light of the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The question on the mind of almost everyone who has followed the horror as it has unfolded over the past two years is, “What we can do?”
The short answer, unfortunately, is not much.
This is hard for many Americans to accept. We have a cultural propensity to believe that if the United States puts in enough money, creativity, willpower, or firepower into a problem that we can make things right. However, despite the desires of both the right-wing nationalists and liberal hawks, this isn’t always the case.
Both the right and the far left seem to embrace the idea that United States—either for good or for ill—has the power to determine the outcome of virtually every conflict in the world. However, there are limits to power. The tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms sent to the Shah and to Mubarak were not enough to keep these dictators in power against the will of their own people. Overwhelming U.S. military force could not prevent a Communist victory in Vietnam or create a peaceful, democratic, pro-American Iraq.
The Baath Party has ruled Syria for most of the past 50 years, from even before the 30-year reign of Bashar al-Assad’s father. Military officers and party apparatchiks have developed their own power base. Dictatorships that rest primarily on the power of just one man – like Libya’s Gaddafi, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Tunisia’s Ben Ali – are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems where a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system. Just as the oligarchy that ruled El Salvador in the 1980s proved to be far more resistant to overthrow by a popular armed revolution than the singular rule of Anastasia Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua, it is not surprising that Syria’s entrenched ruling group has been more resilient than the personalist dictatorships toppled in the wave of largely nonviolent insurrections in neighboring Arab countries.
A large minority of Syrians—consisting of Alawites, Christians, and members of other minority communities; Baath Party loyalists and government employees; the professional armed forces and security services; and the (largely Sunni) crony capitalist class that the government has nurtured—still cling to the Assad regime. There are certainly dissidents within all of these sectors, but altogether regime supporters number as much as one-third of the population.
What this means is that even large-scale direct foreign intervention will not lead to a quick collapse of the regime.
The Nature of the Opposition
The initial popular uprising against the Assad regime, which began in March of 2011, was overwhelmingly nonviolent, broad-based, and non-sectarian. Since turning to primarily armed resistance by early the next year, however, an increasing percentage of the armed opposition appears to consist of hardline Salafi Islamists, including some who are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Even the so-called “moderate” Free Syrian Army consists of literally hundreds of separate armed militias, some of which are just as extreme, and operate without a central command. A shoulder-fired missile that could defend a village from a Syrian helicopter gunship could also take down a civilian airliner.
Proponents of arming the rebels claim the United States could somehow differentiate between “moderate” and “extremist” elements of the opposition, but it is hard to imagine how this could be done in practice. It’s important to remember that most of the U.S. arms sent to Afghan rebels in the 1980s ended up in the hands of Hizb-i-Islami, the most hardline of the half dozen or so mujahedeen groups fighting the Soviets and the Soviet-backed Afghan regime. After the Soviets withdrew and Afghanistan’s Communist government was overthrown, Hizb-i-Islami forces killed thousands of Afghan civilians and are now allied with the Taliban fighting American forces. As with the fall of the Communist regime in Afghanistan, there is no guarantee that Assad’s overthrow would actually bring peace. And as Iraq showed us, opposition to an oppressive Baathist regime does not mean support for the United States, nor does military intervention guarantee a peaceful and democratic post-Baathist government.
Syria is very different from Libya, where NATO air power supported an armed rebellion that toppled the Gaddafi regime in a bloody civil war. The Syrian population is more than three times the size of Libya's, and the terrain far more challenging. The liberated zones controlled by the rebels are tiny and non-contiguous, and the Syrian armed forces—and their anti-aircraft capabilities—are far superior. Another critical difference is that by the time the Libyan uprising began in 2011, Gaddafi had virtually no popular support, although it still took six months of heavy NATO bombardments and fierce fighting by foreign-armed rebel forces to dislodge him.
It is also important to remember that, despite the ouster of Gaddafi and a relatively fair and free vote that elected moderates to lead the new government, Libya has not actually turned out that well. In addition to the summary execution of Gaddafi and many hundreds of his supporters, over 200,000 people in that country of barely 6 million have joined armed militias not controlled by the government, which have been creating havoc throughout the country. Some of these include al-Qaeda-aligned groups, like the one responsible for the deaths of four U.S. officials, including the ambassador, last August. Furthermore, weapons from Libya have proliferated throughout North Africa, playing an important role in the uprising by Tuareg nationalists and Islamist extremists in Mali and the resulting conflict.
Another tragic consequence of the NATO intervention in Libya is that Syrian opposition members may have decided to abandon their impressive nonviolent struggle in the hope that it would prompt Western military intervention.
Problems with “Humanitarian Intervention”
Indeed, as with Libya, there are often serious unintended consequences from foreign intervention. Empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. For example, the wholesale ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by Serbian forces in 1999 began only after NATO’s decision to launch air strikes. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. Military intervention in Syria would likely trigger a "gloves off" mentality that could dramatically escalate the violence on both sides, since the regime would find that it no longer had anything to lose and the opposition would feel no need to negotiate or compromise.
Foreign intervention tends to exacerbate nationalist resistance. The 1999 NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, rather than force Milosevic from power, initially strengthened the regime as people rallied around the flag in the face of more than 11 weeks of bombing by foreign forces. The leaders of Otpor, the youthful pro-democracy movement that would eventually lead the struggle that toppled the regime nonviolently, strongly opposed the bombing and recognized that it set back their cause.
This nationalist reaction is exacerbated by the understandable tendency to question the motivations – sometimes justifiably and sometimes not – of those who advocate the so-called “responsibility to protect.” Indeed, most foreign interventions by the United States which were viewed by most of the international community as acts of imperialism – Vietnam, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama, among others – were rationalized on humanitarian grounds.
Even when imperialism does not appear to be the primary motivation, there is the problem of perceived double standards. For example, President Clinton justified the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia because “we cannot allow this kind of repression to happen on NATO’s doorstep” when very comparable repression was at that time going on within NATO itself, namely in the Kurdish region of Turkey, using primarily U.S.-supplied weaponry. Similarly, while U.S. officials have cited calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups in calling on Russia to stop sending helicopter gunships to Syria, the United States has ignored similar calls by Amnesty International and others to stop sending helicopter gunships to Colombia, Turkey, and Israel, which—like the Syrian regime—have also used these weapons to attack civilians.
Some have called for unilateral military intervention in Syria, arguing that the Russian and Chinese vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions have paralyzed the United Nations from exercising its responsibilities, despite the illegality of such intervention without UN authorization. However, the Syrian regime could also observe that since joining the United Nations 42 years ago, China has used its veto power only eight times and, during that same period, Russia (and previously the Soviet Union) has used its veto power only 18 times. By contrast, the United States has used its veto power 83 times, mostly to protect allies like Israel from accountability for violations of international humanitarian law.
It’s rather revealing that the leading intellectual architect of the so-called “responsibility to protect” is none other than Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who for more than a decade served as head of the International Crisis Group. He was an outspoken supporter of military intervention in Libya following the killing of between 200and 300 civilians by Gaddafi’s forces. However, as Australian foreign minister, he was also an outspoken supporter of Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor, which took the lives of more than 200,000 East Timorese. Indeed, he headed the only foreign ministry in the world that recognized Indonesia’s illegal annexation of the former Portuguese colony. (When I had the temerity to bring this to his attention at an academic conference in Melbourne last year, he started screaming at me, tore off my badge, and threatened to punch me in the face. Apparently, he felt a responsibility to protect his reputation.)
Meanwhile, the U.S. government remains, by far, the world’s primary military, economic, and diplomatic supporter of the world’s remaining authoritarian regimes and occupying armies, openly defending allies engaged in military operations that, like those of the Syrian regime, have resulted in the widespread killing of civilians. For example, during the three-week Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip in early 2009, both the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration—using the same kind of language as apologists for the Syrian regime—insisted that the Israeli attacks on civilian neighborhoods were “legitimate self-defense” against “terrorists” placed responsibility for the civilian deaths solely on armed Islamists, and dismissed reports by the UN Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable groups documenting the atrocities as “biased.”
Until the United States is willing to take a principled stand against all war crimes, regardless of the relationship of the perpetrator with the United States, the Obama administration will have a hard time convincing Syrians and others that its intentions in supporting the armed opposition are actually humanitarian.
Provoking Assad’s Nationalist Card
Indeed, the intentions of Western governments, particularly the United States, are highly suspect in the eyes of many Syrians, even among those opposed to Assad’s dictatorship. U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience manipulating the Syrian people's strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States is the world's primary military supplier to the region’s remaining dictatorships and disingenuously used the "promotion of democracy" and fabricated claims of “weapons of mass destruction” to justify its illegal and disastrous invasion of its neighbor Iraq which, like Syria, happens to oppose Washington's designs on the region.
The United States has also been the primary military, financial, and diplomatic supporter of the government of Israel, which has occupied much of Syria's southwestern Golan province since it seized the territory in a military assault in the closing hours of the 1967 war, ethnically cleansing most of its residents. Indeed, in 2007, the United States successfully blocked progress towards Israel-Syria peace out of concern that the return of the Golan Heights could bolster Assad’s standing at home.
Well prior to the popular uprising against the regime, the United States had been seeking the downfall of the Syrian government, with the Bush administration actively considering options for toppling the regime. The United States imposed major unilateral sanctions on the country in 2003. In addition to repeated U.S. attacks against Syrian positions in Lebanon in 1983-84, the United States bombed Syria itself as recently as 2008, killing eight civilians. Syrians know this history and, among the large numbers who support neither the regime nor the armed opposition, further U.S. involvement is more likely to move them closer to the regime.
Indeed, Western intervention could unwittingly trigger the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Syrians to resist foreign invaders. Hundreds of Syrians have quit the Baath party and government positions in protest of the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if Americans and Europeans attacked their country.
Opposing U.S. support for the armed resistance in Syria has nothing to do with indifference, isolationism, or pacifism. Nor is it indicative of being any less horrified at the suffering of the Syrian people or any less desirous of the overthrow of Assad’s brutal regime. With so much at stake, however, it is critical not to allow the understandably strong emotional reaction to the ongoing carnage lead to policies that could end up making things even worse.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.
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