When the Rubber Meets the Road

By Eugenio Lilli

Military intervention in Syria “would benefit the US the most”. This is the conclusion drawn by two respected authors, Michael Doran and Max Boot, about the current situation in Syria and the way the US and the West should respond to it. They are by no means the only voices supporting such a move. On the contrary, Doran and Boot epitomise the opinion of a growing number of people arguing in favour of a US-led military intervention to stop the conflict. Here, I take issue with each of the five reasons these experts presented to support their position and suggest that the international community, and the US in particular, should think twice before embarking in another military adventure in the Middle East.

“First, American intervention would diminish Iran’s influence in the Arab world by removing a regime friendly to Tehran". That is not necessarily true. For months Iran’s plan A has clearly been to shore up the Assad regime by allegedly providing arms and training to Syrian security forces. However, some analysts are suggesting that Iran also has a plan B in case President Assad is ousted: to turn Syria into a new Afghanistan by stirring up instability and disorder. In the past decade, Iran’s allies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, have demonstrated an outstanding ability of exploiting situations of chaos to increase their influence and reach positions of power. An unstable and lawless Syria would probably represent a much more serious threat to its neighbours, particularly to Israel, than a Syria under the Iranian-sponsored iron-fist rule of Bashar al-Assad.

“Second, a more muscular American policy could keep the conflict from spreading”. Unfortunately, it could also have the opposite effect of transforming the Syrian crisis into a regional or even international conflict by dragging in a wide variety of foreign players. A US-sponsored military intervention, in fact, could result in other actors, such as Iran, Hezbollah and perhaps even Russia, taking a more active and direct stance in the combat. Last August, after a meeting in Moscow with his Russian and Chinese counterparts, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil ominously warned that “direct military intervention in Syria is impossible because whoever thinks about it is heading towards a confrontation wider than Syria's borders”. In addition, foreign military intervention in Syria may even push a besieged regime to take the desperate decision of using the stockpiles of chemical weapons that several intelligence sources repeatedly argued Syria possesses.

“Third, by training and equipping reliable partners within Syria’s internal opposition, America could create a bulwark against extremist groups like al Qaeda which are present in Syria". Such statement simply disregards the complex and opaque nature of the Syrian opposition. Despite continuous efforts, and the deployment of CIA teams on the ground both near the Turkish and the Jordanian borders, it is not clear which groups under the general banner of the Free Syrian Army are actually “reliable”. Compounding the already difficult picture is the reportedly growing number of Islamist fighters in the country. Opposition groups, like the Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, have been often described as al-Qaeda affiliates. We should never forget the hard lesson from Afghanistan in the 1980s when the US by arming the Afghan rebels against the Soviets ultimately created the conditions for the rise of the Taliban. Asked about the wisdom of arming the rebels, former CIA Islamabad Chief of Station Milton A. Bearden, who helped oversee the CIA’s clandestine support of Afghan fighters in the 1980s, said on The New York Times, “the complexity of Syria today makes Afghanistan in 1985 look very simple” and he asked “who is the Syrian opposition? Who would these weapons go to?” Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to these questions.

“Fourth, American leadership on Syria could improve relations with key allies like Turkey and Qatar”. No doubt that Turkey, Qatar and also Saudi Arabia would be willing to see the US taking a more active approach to the conflict in Syria. All of them, in fact, are already supporting the Syrian opposition’s armed struggle against President Assad by purportedly providing both money and light weapons. However, the use of force by a US-led coalition would inevitably strain relations with Russia, China and Iran. While relations with the latter are already at their nadir because of Tehran’s nuclear aspirations, Russia and China represent two extraordinarily important interlocutors whose cooperation, or at least non-interference, is indispensable for the US and the West to address a wide range of economic, environmental and security issues. So that begs the question: would it be worth it to jeopardise  relations with Russia and China in order to improve relations with countries like Turkey and Qatar which are already on friendly terms with the US?

“Finally, American action could end a terrible human-rights disaster within Syria and stop the exodus of refugees". Quite the opposite. A US-sponsored military intervention could have the unintended consequence of prompting President Assad’s foreign backers to increase the level of their support for the Syrian government, therefore having the disastrous effect of prolonging the conflict, escalating the violence of the fighting – by introducing more lethal weapons - and eventually exacerbating its humanitarian costs. Moreover, to use force without a UN Security Council resolution, as it seems very unlikely that Russia and China will change their stands on the issue anytime soon, would strike a terrible blow to the very legitimacy of the UN. The long shadow of the Iraq invasion in 2003 still looms at the horizon. At that time few people liked the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein but, widespread dislike notwithstanding, the opposition to the war, and to the US, was enormous. 

In addition, what about the financial costs of a military intervention in times of tight economic budgets? What about the challenges of the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria? And what about the danger of further inflaming Islamic passions in the wake of last September’s protests and attacks against US and other Western countries’ diplomatic posts? You must answer such questions before sending troops to war, lest you find yourself bogged down in a violent and sectarian conflict with no clear exit strategy. Does this gloomy scenario sound familiar to anyone? All that considered, there is an urgent need to rethink the wisdom and utility of a military intervention as the best means to end the crisis that is engulfing Syria.


Eugenio Lilli is a Postgraduate Researcher at the Defence Studies Department, King's College London and a Teaching Fellow at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. 


26 November 2012