There is a certain arrogance with being the world’s only superpower. The United States can project military power anywhere on the globe in a way that no other country can. That power is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that we are able to defend American interests (both economic and strategic) and stop human rights violations wherever and whenever we need to. The curse is that we are constantly tempted to do so… and often the best thing we can do is nothing at all.
Syria is, I believe, one such case. In particular, in Syria there are basically four options on the table:
1) Invade Syria with ground troops, forcible remove Assad from power, and rebuild the government and country. This is what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Note that to do this in Syria would be more difficult than it was in either of those cases, mostly because there are many more terrorist groups, countries, and ethnic groups with a stake in the outcome. To be fair, I’ve seen very few people seriously considering this option.
2) Start an aerial bombardment campaign against Syria, alongside diplomatic pressure to encourage Assad to withdraw. This is the strategy proposed in today’s New York Times by Gen. Wesley Clark, and is basically what we did in both Libya (recently) and in Kosovo (during the Clinton Administration).
3) Give money and weapons to various opposition groups within Syria, in the hopes that they will thus be able to kick out Assad on their own. We have done this a number of places around the world over the decades, most notably in Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the 1980s (Nicaragua was a disaster; Afghanistan was a short-term success, although many of those same weapons have been used against American troops over the last decade). This is what the Obama Administration recently announced that it would do, after significant pressure from Europe, Congress, and (apparently) even Bill Clinton.
4) Do nothing at all militarily, and try to use diplomatic pressure to minimize foreign intervention in the conflict and provide humanitarian assistance to those who have been killed or displaced. This is what the Obama Administration had been doing until recently.
The problem with the first three options is that there is no single rebel group. There is no unified coalition of rebel groups. In fact, the only thing that the rebels have in common is that they want to kick out Assad. There are known terrorist groups among them. There are groups serving as proxies for foreign governments. There are religious fanatics. There are some groups that are fighting for the dominance of their own ethnicity, and others that would prefer that their ethnicity pull out of Syria all together. It’s a hot mess.
So, let’s say that we kick out Assad. What then? There is no single group or coalition in position to take over, so we could very likely be looking at civil war. We could try to broker an agreement for elections, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the major groups would participate in such an agreement. Besides which, most people in most countries don’t actually like foreign intervention, even well-meaning foreign intervention–which means that any group or groups that accept American assistance will likely be at a disadvantage in subsequent elections.
And let’s talk about Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey for a minute. All of those countries border Syria, and Syria has stockpiles of chemical weapons. Turkey doesn’t want Syrian refugees pouring over their border, and they especially don’t want the creation of a Kurdish homeland (which would exacerbate their own problems with that ethnic group). Israel and Lebanon both have active border disputes with Syria. And, of course, Israel is a convenient target for any Syrian group looking to boost it’s own popularity by attacking a neighbor.
So, what do we do about all of that? Do we use American troops to enforce an agreement? That means putting American lives on the line in Syria for the next decade or so. Do we use UN troops to do the same? Assuming that the UN security council would agree (no guarantee given the veto power of Russia and China), that puts UN troops in the line of fire–and there is every reason to doubt the UN’s resolve in the long-haul when bombs are exploding. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any way to guarantee the stability of a post-Assad Syria.
Which is why we shouldn’t be so eager for Assad to lose power. I’m not disputing that he’s a tyrant. He certainly is. But he’s at least a tyrant we know, and one who is capable of actually ruling the country. He has, moreover, retained control of the Syrian military throughout this crisis. (We forget that the fall of both the Egyptian and Libyan regimes was precipitated by the loss of support from their respective militaries.)
No good can come of American military intervention, and plenty of bad can happen. Which is why we should do nothing, at least militarily. Let Syria work out its own problems for the time being. Assad’s regime will fall eventually–but that fall needs to happen at the hands of the Syrian people, preferably a much more unified Syrian people than we have now. If we force Assad’s fall just because we can, it will do no good for Syria, and could easily do a lot of harm for American interests and allies.