Why is Syria Different: Two Years Later

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An unknown child with the Syrian flag painted on his face in a rally to support Syrian rebels. Image from muslimvillage.com.

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Recent United Nations estimates place the current death toll in Syria at over 100,000 with another 1.7 million refugees who have fled to neighboring countries.  The United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees has even said that this is the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Cold War.  With recent allegations of widespread chemical weapon use by the Assad regime, isn’t it time for the United States to step in and make a real difference in Syria?  Let’s look at the points I made in my 2011 article and see what, if anything, has changed to necessitate American military involvement in Syria.

In that article, the first issue about Syria I addressed was the state of the rebellion itself.  In 2011 the Syrian conflict still had a limited theater with very little organized resistance to Assad’s forces.  The Free Syrian Army was in its infancy and was competing with many other armed groups for supremacy in Syria.  While the range of the conflict has expanded in Syria, the organization and unity of rebel groups has not.  The Free Syrian Army is still the preferred secular rebel group of the Western world, but dozens of rebel groups have also appeared and are competing for international legitimacy, limited resources, and the support of the Syrian people.  The rise of Islamist groups has also caused the United States and other Western countries to withhold any sort of lethal military aid, fearing to arm its enemies in the Middle East.  As groups like Hamas and al-Qaeda strengthen their ties in Syria, it increasingly looks like a failed state with too many groups fighting each other to accurately understand what is happening.  Without clear allies to support in the region, the United States has the difficult decision of whom to support and how to ensure that a new Syria is stable.  Not to mention if a new Syria will be able to effectively protect its large supplies of chemical and biological weapons.  This inability to know whom to support has led to the continued impasse of Western nations in Syria.  Until this problem is resolved it is unlikely that we will see sustained military aid to any rebel groups in Syria.

My second point was the powerful international friends that Syria continues to have in Russia and China.  After the debacle in Iraq, the Obama administration is deeply worried about unilateral moves to compromise another nation’s sovereignty and effectively declare war.  Russia continues to hamper any United Nations declarations about Syria and the Western world can effectively say that action is not necessary if the United Nations passes no security declarations.  To this point the only official foreign military involvement in Syria has come from neighboring countries like Israel and Turkey responding with artillery and air attacks to Syrian aggression, but these strikes have been limited in nature.  With the newest evidence of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, Washington has begun discussing the idea of targeted cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets.  While this would technically mean that the United States is engaging militarily in the Syrian conflict, the effects of these strikes would likely be limited in the long-term.  The Obama administration has not made any indication that these strikes would be followed by any follow-up action of a no-fly-zone or buffer zones in Syria.  Instead, these strikes would serve as a slap on the wrist for the Assad regime to remember to play by the rules, not the United States supporting the rebellion in any real way.  While cruise missile strikes are a very real possibility in the coming weeks, it is extremely unlikely that this will lead to wider U.S. involvement.

The final point I made in the previous article concerned the geographic location of Syria.  I argued that as the Syrian conflict grew it was likely that neighboring countries would become involved in the fighting.  On a limited basis this has already occurred with artillery strikes originating from Israel and Turkey striking Syria to protect refugees.  Forces from Lebanon’s Hezbollah have already joined the conflict with dire consequences.  Other regional governments are responding to the idea of united strikes while Syria, Iran, and Russia warn against missile strikes in Syria.  It is unclear whether the threats from Syria, Iran, and Russia will really happen but is the Obama administration willing to find out simply to tell Assad to play by the rules?  It is extremely unlikely that a regional war would erupt from missile strikes in Syria but the potential loss of life on all sides means that the Obama administration is obligated to take the threats seriously.

Looking at the conflict in Syria today presents an even more confusing picture than that viewed in December 2011.  The conflict has spilled over into other countries both through refugees and limited military engagements, while the rebel movements have become even more divided.  In addition to these issues, the recent use of chemical weapons makes the situation more complicated and the correct course of action for the United States is even more unclear.  How will limited missile strikes affect Iran’s influence in the conflict?  How will the conflict spread to neighboring countries if the United States military becomes involved?  Will enlarging the conflict actually harm more civilians in neighboring countries rather than protect those dying in Syria?  These are questions that are difficult to answer definitively and without these answers the United States should not engage in military intervention in Syria.  Military strikes in Syria could have dire consequences for American interests and allies in the region, and potentially cause the death of significantly larger numbers of civilians.  Instead, the United States should continue using diplomatic pressure in both the United Nations and directly with Iran and Russia to find a solution to the issue.  If neighboring countries firmly believe that military action should be taken against Syria it should be done by a coalition of regional countries without the direct offensive support of the United States.

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2 Responses to “Why is Syria Different: Two Years Later”

  1. Kevin Dolan Says:

    I think the most important point you raise here is that we have no real intention of escalating if Assad doesn’t buckle after a few token missile strikes.

    A shot across the bow only works because it carries the threat of shots through the hull. We’re not prepared to make good on that threat, and everybody knows it.

    So Congress will back down, or Assad will weather the strikes. Either way, he’ll finally be able to tell the opposition, “Nobody is coming to save you.” Given the relatively small scale of the gas attacks, I think that was his plan all along.

  2. Skye Herrick Says:

    Thank you Kevin. I agree that the limited strike does very little and that the new proposal from the Russians is actually a great way out of a corner (although it does give Russia a lot of soft power in the world, which could be another concern(.