The Arab League suspends Syrian membership; the king of Jordan calls for Bashar al-Assad’s departure; Turkey appears ready for more aggressive anti-Assad measures; defectors from the Syrian Army are attacking regime targets. And all the while the regime continues killing its people with impunity.
Now is the time for America to step up and lead a NATO military intervention to topple the Syrian regime?
No. It Isn’t. Military intervention now will not work. Do not look to Libya for lessons on how to overthrow this dictator. If anything, the Libyan model is a cautionary tale, and potentially a whole lot of trouble if the lesson is ignored.
As painful as it is to watch unarmed civilians killed, sometimes discretion — at least for America, and at least for now — really is the better part of valor.
Libya isn’t Syria. But it was low-hanging fruit — at least from the perspective of outside intervention. A big empty place roughly the size of Alaska with a long coastline, lacking sophisticated air assets or air defenses, and run by a regime of thugs and clowns, Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya offered a reasonable prospect for NATO military success.
It still took eight messy, bloody months to topple Qaddafi. Indeed, there were moments when even the champions of intervention in the Obama administration wondered whether it would work.
Intervention by committee, backed by unorganized rebels, was never going to be easy. But we Americans were wise to resist pressures to finish the job more quickly by taking the direct lead. It was important to involve the Europeans and the Arabs — it’s their neighborhood, after all — and to let the Libyans gain the legitimacy of their own liberation (albeit with a huge NATO assist).
The Assad regime is rotten fruit, but it’s not at all clear whether it’s ready to fall. Unlike Libya, where the opposition was divided, but at least held control of parts of the country, the Syrian opposition is inchoate, and lacks even a rudimentary armed component. It is stunningly vulnerable; it does not control parts of the country from which it can operate or where it can be assisted.
The opposition would like to create such sanctuaries, but there’s no sense that it can do this yet, and the regime is determined to stop it. In Rastan, a key town along a central road to the Syrian-Turkish border, the regime sent in hundreds of tanks to do precisely that.
Then there’s the problem of assembling an international coalition. Yes, the world is outraged and Syria is under sanctions and isolated. But the prospects of mobilizing the United Nations Security Council to sanction a NATO intervention are nill. The Russians and the Chinese are dead set against it; the French, British and Americans are squeamish, and for good reason.
Plus Syria still has friends in the region. None that can save it, to be sure, but some who would do what they can to complicate an allied intervention, including Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Turkey will support tougher rhetoric and sanctions against Assad, but Ankara will not get out in front on any military intervention. The Israelis might be able to help with intelligence, but keeping them at a distance would be critical to any successful intervention in Syria.
The battle for Syria would likely be a long one. The interveners would need a coalition of the truly willing prepared to stick to it, and probably to intercede with boots on the ground.
A coalition of the partially committed would not work. Once military actions began, there would be no turning back. Escalation would be inevitable against a regime that will use every instrument it possesses to survive. There’s no room for encouraging the opposition and then not being prepared to support it.
Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq apologized to the Shia community for the failure of the United States to do more in 1991 after it encouraged Shia opposition to Saddam Hussein. We do not want that to be repeated.
The options on Syria are not happy ones. We can’t stick our heads in the sand, nor can we lose them.
For now, the measures that make sense include tightening sanctions; pushing the United Nations to dispatch human-rights monitors; monitoring the Syrian-Lebanese and Syrian-Turkish borders; and pushing the Arabs and the Turks to start supporting the Syrian opposition with money and clandestine military aid should they want it.
If the time comes to consider military action, politicians and military planners should think it through very carefully. Syria is not Libya; the potential for sectarian violence and even civil war, coupled with the possibility of outside intervention, makes the complexities and rivalries of post-Qaddafi Libya seem mild by comparison.
Inaction by the international community while a brutal regime kills its people has its costs, but so does big-footing by great powers. One thing we know about discretionary, poorly conceived military action is that getting into such conflicts is always a lot easier than getting out.
By Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of the forthcoming book Can America Have Another Great President?