Michael Totten

Intervention in Syria? Don’t Count on it

Hussein Ibish over at NOW Lebanon explains—accurately—why the United States has an interest in seeing Syria’s revolution wrapped up as quickly as possible.

A civil war in Syria would likely have a strongly sectarian character and the potential to spill over into neighboring states such as Lebanon and Iraq, posing a significant threat to regional stability. It could also prove a protracted, bloody mess.

At least as troubling from Washington’s perspective is that the outcome is very uncertain. What the aftermath would look like is even more unclear than it was in Libya, where the stakes were considerably lower. The possibilities of stalemate, regional conflict, de facto partition, communal cleansing, waves of refugees, empowerment of extremists and other grim scenarios all inform a strong American desire not to see the emergence of civil war in Syria.

This conundrum is shared not only by other Western powers but some Arab states and many in the Syrian opposition, including a large group in the Syrian National Council’s leadership, as well.

But none of these actors are in control of events on the ground, which seem to be moving inexorably toward intensified armed conflict and away from a political battle. The regime has presented the Syrians in general, as well as the international community, with a binary choice: Take us as is, or face an open-ended conflict with uncertain outcomes.

He is all but certain that every international solution proposed thus far is going to fail, and he’s right. Serious muscle, or at least the promise of serious muscle, is just about the only thing that can work at this point.

It was always the only thing that was going to work. Bashar al-Assad never had it in him to reform or go quietly. He left Lebanon quietly, at least compared with what he’s up to right now, but that’s because he had a place to withdraw to. You want him out of his palace? Then shoot him out of it.

Ibish thinks this means outside intervention is all but inevitable.

I can sit here all day and write up horrible-case scenarios that could unfold if we don’t intervene, horrible-case scenarios that could make the White House wish it had acted when it still had a chance. But I can also sit here all day and write up horrible-case scenarios that might unfold if the US or NATO (or Israel) does intervene.

Barack Obama’s default position is one of confrontation avoidance. That doesn’t mean he’ll refuse to use force in all circumstances—see Libya—but he is less likely to pull the trigger than his predecessor, and he’s probably less likely to pull the trigger than whoever will turn out to be his replacement.

And it’s a hell of a lot harder to politically survive a disastrous outcome that results from deliberate action than from inaction. The genocide in Rwanda was orders of magnitude more violent than the Iraqi insurgency, but it damaged Bill Clinton’s presidency not at all while the drawn-out war in Iraq hurt George W. Bush’s considerably.

So if I had to wager here, I’d say the United States will not intervene in Syria unless Assad first widens the conflict. Nothing is certain and I could be wrong, but Syria ain’t Libya. And few things spook Obama like the thought of another Iraq.