Syria - What (Not) to Do
By Bridget Moix on 03/16/2012 @ 02:30 PM
This week marked one year since the start of the violent crackdown against what began as a nonviolent uprising in Syria. Since that time, thousands of people have been killed and the country now appears to be slipping toward full civil war. The Syrian government continues a campaign of violent repression, including the recent attack on Homs that killed hundreds of civilians. Many opposition groups are now actively taking up arms against the regime, convinced that ending the Assad regime through force is the only option left. President Bashar al-Assad himself has demonstrated strong resistance to international diplomatic and even humanitarian efforts to address the escalating crisis.
Here in Washington, talk of military intervention in Syria is also escalating quickly. Despite warnings by many experts, including military officials, that foreign armed intervention in Syria could spark broader regional conflict and increase the humanitarian suffering, some members of Congress, administration officials, and human rights advocates are urging "something" be done. Once again, in the midst of violence, our toolbox seems tragically sparse.
I'm shocked, though, at the calls for military intervention. While I know far too little about Syria to propose a comprehensive way forward, what I have learned through the crisis illustrates what a disaster military intervention would be. Syria sits right in the middle of a volatile mix of Middle East politics. Foreign military intervention would undoubtedly lead to broader regional conflict and potential proxy wars. Meanwhile, "the opposition" in Syria that the US and others suggest should be backed to overthrow the Assad regime is its own diverse mix of interests and actors that few outside Syria truly understand. Consider also the humanitarian impact of military intervention, including unrealistic proposals for "humanitarian corridors" or "safe havens". Syria is a highly populous country and the conflict is not concentrated in particular regions but erupts and then dissipates erratically from one place to another as the much weaker armed opposition tries to outfox the Syrian regime. Bombing strikes would undoubtedly wreak devastation on civilian centers, and trying to carve out some kind of humanitarian corridors would likely make civilians more of a target. Finally, the comparison to Libya as proof that a military intervention could work in Syria is incredibly short-sighted and rose-colored. Hundreds of armed militias now exist in Libya, the east of the country is trying to break off, and conflict will continue to devastate lives there for years to come. In fact, the inability to reach a diplomatic consensus on Syria at the UN is partly a result of the Libyan intervention - sold to the international community as protection of civilians and revealed in the end as regime change.
Looking at the costs of a military intervention, it seems nearly impossible to justify on humanitarian, strategic, or any other grounds. International Crisis Group recently agreed and proposed a possible diplomatic strategy to try to end the violence and broker a transition. The Global Center on the Responsibility to Protect has also urged increased international pressure - without military intervention. While these proposals - from leveraging Russia to ICC indictments - are painfully slow and difficult, the costs they carry for the people of Syria, the region, and long-term peace and stability are significantly lower than military intervention and their potential for even short-term success may be higher as well.
For its part, the US should be throwing all its diplomatic weight and resources behind Kofi Annan and the UN's attempt to broker a way out of the crisis, providing generous humanitarian assistance to refugees in neighboring countries and to those few humanitarian organizations still able to operate in Syria, and pressing full court for an arms embargo that would at least help limit the killing power. If those efforts fail, the US should work with the international community to try and try again. The Senate rightly resisted a resolution that would have opened the way to direct arming of the opposition, and instead rightly condemned the violence and pressed for international political and legal measures. Congress should continue to resist the increasing calls for military intervention.
Though these steps may not satisfy the urgent cry to "do something" in the face of violence, non-military alternatives must be found to halt the violence, provide humanitarian assistance, and chart a political transition to a new Syria. The alternative of military intervention is doomed to fail and ultimately cost more lives and human tragedy.
Finally, the real lessons of Libya and Syria must not be lost on US policymakers. Violent conflict and atrocities against civilians, once underway, are incredibly difficult to stop. Cycles of violence must be interrupted before the guns are firing; prevention is always better than cure.