Amid the seemingly ceaseless wave of pro-interventionist chatter emanating from both humanitarian liberals and hard-nosed neo-conservatives inside the Beltway, three simple truths keep getting lost. While these facts may not have been driving the US’ position of non-intervention in Syria, they should have been and they remain valid today, although they may soon be abandoned.
First, while watching a nation tear itself apart is heartbreaking, no dispassionate analysis could conclude that arming and aiding al-Qaida and other terrorist-affiliated rebels is the smartest move the US can make. Whenever a nation intervenes in a conflict, the side that is opposed does not go quietly into the night. Worse, the weapons of the displaced regime are not well controlled, nor is the stability of the victorious side assured.
The outcome of the Iraq intervention was a disaster, and we are already seeing how the fruits of the supposedly bloodless, costless Libyan intervention include not only a still devastated and divided country, but the extensive proliferation of advanced weapons such as the portable missiles that can down civilian and military aircraft. There also was the attack on the American consulate last September that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Further evidence of this reality is rampant from experiences in Egypt and, soon enough, Afghanistan.
Second, the Syrian civil war never was and is not now about a single repressive regime versus an oppressed minority, but rather an all-out regional conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. In many ways, this is the very conflict al-Qaida wanted when it attacked the US more than a decade ago — a move designed to eject the Western presence from the Middle East and trigger a fight for Sunni supremacy over Shia-ruled regions. Very few military strategists would recommend getting enmeshed in a regional civil war of religious reformation; they tend to be long, bloody and full of unexpected, unforeseen and immeasurable risks.
Third, continued US and allied intervention gives volatile regimes even more impetus to arm themselves with advanced weapons, including highly capable Russian long-range surface-to-air missiles like the S-300. Indeed, continued intervention across state boundaries bolsters not only Russian and Chinese arms sales, but also strengthens those nations’ claims that the West is becoming hegemonic and may, one day, intervene in any given nation for nearly any reason.
While this slippery slope argument seems absurd to Americans, it resonates with regimes across much of the world and is driving global arms proliferation certain to bear fruit in unanticipated and undesired ways, including building opposition to US economic and military imperatives.
Is there a rational alternative to interventionism? Does another, more self-interested path make as much or more sense for the US? A rational strategy sometimes means knowing when to take action and when not to; true strength comes from being clear about one’s interests, but also judicious about when and where to expend blood and treasure.
One approach would address the root cause of the conflicts instead of chasing symptoms, choosing not to wash the region in weapons but mount a diplomatic effort to establish borders that reflect on-the-ground realities, not Western-imposed demarcations of the post-colonialist period.
Rather than discarding the Westphalian principle of state sovereignty through intervention, maybe we should no longer enforce the maintenance of arbitrary state borders that dissect ethnic and cultural communities.
This may not be possible, so another strategy would be to keep out of the conflict until the new battle lines are drawn and deal with the future as it unfolds rather than trying to thread an impossible path through a motley assortment of failing states, sectarian divisions, Islamist terrorists, and chemical and other weapons of mass destruction.
There is no clear good side in Syria, only two bad sides with innocents caught in the middle. All war is terrible but perhaps none more so than a war of choice that leads to American deaths, as well as American resources paying to better arm terrorist factions that are our inevitable opponents.
Indeed, with evidence from the recent regional conflicts and the illiberal, ultimately undemocratic outcomes of the once wistfully labeled Arab Spring, it seems unlikely that picking the path of a destabilized Syria with uncontrolled diffusion of chemical weapons and ever better armed terrorists cannot be in America’s national security interests.
J. Michael Barrett, CEO of Diligent Innovations, a strategic consulting company in Arlington, Va., and a former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council.