As the Syrian government makes increasingly desperate and vicious efforts to keep power, pleas for military intervention, more or less on the Libyan model, have become more insistent. This course is morally attractive, to be sure. But should Western states follow this counsel? I think not.
Those calls to action fall into three main categories: a Sunni Muslim concern for co-religionists, a universal humanitarian interest in stopping torture and murder, and a geopolitical worry about the impact of the ongoing conflict. The first two motives can be dispatched fairly easily.
If Sunni governments - notably those of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - choose to intervene on behalf of fellow Sunnis against Alawis, that is their prerogative, but Western states have no dog in this fight. Generalized humanitarian concerns face problems of veracity, feasibility and consequence. Anti-regime insurgents appear responsible for at least some atrocities. Western electorates may not accept the loss of blood and treasure required for humanitarian intervention. Such intervention must succeed quickly - say within a year. The successor government may (as in the Libyan case) turn out to be even worse than the existing totalitarianism.
Together, these factors argue compellingly against humanitarian intervention. Foreign-policy interests should take precedence because Westerners are not so strong and safe that they can look at Syria only out of concern for Syrians; rather, they must view the country strategically, putting a priority on their own security.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has helpfully summarized in the New Republic reasons why a Syrian civil war poses dangers to U.S. interests: The Assad regime could lose control of its chemical and biological arsenal; it could renew the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency against Ankara; it could regionalize the conflict by pushing its Palestinian population across the Jordanian, Lebanese and Israeli borders; and it could fight the Sunnis of Lebanon, reigniting the Lebanese civil war. Sunni jihadi warriors, in response, could turn Syria into the global nexus of violent Islamist terrorism - one bordering NATO and Israel. Finally, Mr. Satloff worries that a protracted conflict gives Islamists greater opportunities than does one that ends quickly.
To which I reply: Yes, the weapons of mass destruction could go rogue, but I worry more about their ending up in the hands of an Islamist successor government. A renewed PKK insurgency against the hostile government ruling Turkey, or increased Sunni-Alawi tensions in that country hardly rank as major Western concerns. Expelling Palestinians would barely destabilize Jordan or Israel. Lebanon is already a balkanized mess, and, in contrast to the 1976-91 period, internal fighting under way there only marginally affects Western interests. The global jihad effort has limited resources; the location may be less than ideal, but what better than for it to fight Iran’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to the death in Syria?
As for time working against Western interests, even if the Syrian conflict ended immediately, I foresee almost no prospect of a multiethnic and multireligious government emerging. Whether sooner or later, after Mr. Assad and his lovely wife decamp, Islamists will attempt to seize power, Sunnis will take vengeance, and regional tensions will play out within Syria.
Also, overthrowing the Assad regime does not mean the sudden end of Syria’s civil war. More likely, Mr. Assad’s fall will lead to Alawi and other Iranian-backed elements resisting the new government. Moreover, as Gary C. Gambill of the Middle East Forum points out, Western military involvement could embolden opposition to the new government and prolong the fighting. Finally, as earlier was the case in Iraq, protracted conflict in Syria offers some geopolitical advantages:
It lessens the chances of Damascus starting a war with Israel or reoccupying Lebanon.
It increases the chances that Iranians, living under the thumb of the mullahs who are Assad’s key ally, will draw inspiration from the Syrian uprising and likewise rebel against their rulers.
It inspires greater Sunni Arab anger at Tehran, especially as the Islamic Republic of Iran has been providing arms, finance and technology to help repress Syrians.
It relieves the pressure on non-Muslims. Indicative of the new thinking, Jordanian Salafi leader Abou Mohamad Tahawi recently stated, “The Alawi and Shia coalition is currently the biggest threat to Sunnis, even more than the Israelis.”
It foments Middle Eastern rage at Moscow and Beijing for supporting the Assad regime. Western interests suggest staying out of the Syrian morass.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and the Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.