Syria Is Not Iraq

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

More than a year ago, a real debate began over whether to intervene militarily in Syria. Here in The Atlantic, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations was one of the first to propose taking military action – or at least thinking seriously about it. When Cook wrote his article (which, in its prescience, is well worth re-reading today), around 5,000 Syrians had been killed. Today, the number is more than 10 times that, and is now over 60,000 according to some estimates. I remember, early on, wondering whether 15,000 would be a “trigger.”

But, apparently, there is no “trigger.” Military intervention in Syria cannot not happen without American support and there is nothing to suggest the United States has any interest in intervening, no matter the number of dead. The Obama administration has cited the use of chemical weapons as a “red line,” but even that red line has managed to shift back and forth several times.

Opponents of intervention have, understandably, tended to focus on the risky – and potentially prohibitively difficult – nature of military action. Yet, the very fact that some “red lines” do exist suggests that the U.S. would be willing to intervene at some point, in spite of those difficulties. The question, then, isn’t so much the difficulty of the operation as much as what is an appropriate red line.

If Bashar al-Assad proceeded to destroy an entire city, killing 100,000 people in the matter of weeks, presumably many of those opposing intervention would decide to support it. But why then and not now? Why exactly is 60,000 people not enough? Sure, the use of chemical weapons should be a red line for national security reasons, but why should strictly national security considerations be a red line, when the killing of tens of thousands isn’t? It is this latter point which sends precisely the wrong message to Arab audiences and the broader international community. Nothing fundamental has changed in U.S. policy since the Arab Spring, even though many of us said, and hoped, that new realities required a new way of doing business. As I wrote nearly a year ago,

What made Libya a “pure” intervention was that we acted not because our vital interests were threatened but in spite of the fact that they were not. For me, this was yet one more reason to laud it.

The memory of the Iraq War obviously looms large. The war, itself, was one of the greatest strategic blunders in the recent history of American foreign policy. But its legacy is proving just as damaging, leading to a series of mistakes that we are likely to regret in due time. There would have been much more willingness to intervene in Syria if we hadn’t intervened in Iraq. But the Bush Administraton’s misguided adventurism abroad has made open displays of ideology, or even simple morality, in foreign policy seem suspect. Today, it is fashionable to play technocrat and ask “what works?” Asking this question, as opposed to others, is a marker of pragmatism and prudence. As difficult as it may be, the thinking goes, we must do away with moral sentiments and attachments, which tend to distort more than clarify.

As Cook pointed out in another piece, fundamental questions of morality and philosophy are what, in part, separate proponents and opponents of intervention. “Is it a morally superior position,” Cook asks, “to sit by as people are being killed rather than take action that will kill people, but nevertheless may end up saving lives as well?” The question here, then, isn’t whether it will work, but will it be worth it?

Such questions are worth considering, and thinking seriously about, but they’re unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. In returning to narrower questions of what, if anything, can stop the killing, a few considerations are in order. First, Bashar al-Assad might have a particularly high tolerance for brutality, but there is little to suggest he has ceased being a rational actor. And the unfortunate reality is that he has no real incentive stop the slaughter of Syrians unless there is a credible threat of military action. It is clear that this is a relevant calculation for Assad and the people around him. The regime has spent the last year testing its limits, seeing how far it can go. Accordingly, the rate of killing has never dramatically shot up. Rather, it has increased slowly and gradually, as Assad gauges the international community reactions and its willingness to intervene more aggressively. He apparently has gotten his answer.

Even if the Obama administration has little interest in intervening, it seems odd, even remarkable, that it would choose to telegraph that lack of interest to the Syrian regime in such a flagrant manner. It would have made much more sense for the Obama administration and leading European powers, along with NATO, to publicly discuss military options and make a good-faith effort to consider them.

So much of the aversion to intervention, as mentioned earlier, has been predicated on Syria’s supposed similarity to Iraq and the fear of entering into another quagmire. But no one, to my knowledge, was proposing a full-on ground invasion of Iraq. Instead, what was being suggested was an escalatory ladder of varying military options. An escalation would be contingent on how the Syrian regime (and the rebels) responded. Mission creep is always a risk, but if there was ever an administration resistant to mission creep, it is the Obama administration, as became evident during the Libya operation, when the U.S. went out of its way to limit its involvement, even at the cost of prolonging it.

Another unfortunate feature of the ongoing debate was the tendency to treat the military option and the diplomatic “alternative,” as mutually exclusive. They never were. On the contrary, they could have been pursued in parallel. In Bosnia, NATO power forced the Serbs to the negotiating table, leading to the Dayton Accords and the introduction of multinational peacekeeping forces. In Libya, the Qaddafi regime showed more interest in negotiating with the opposition after military intervention, rather than before (Within a few weeks of the NATO operation, Qaddafi envoys were engaging in ceasefire talks).

Lastly, it is worth thinking about what this means for future instances of mass slaughter. With the Libya intervention, there was hope that a post-Arab Spring precedent would be set – that whenever pro-democracy protesters were threatened with massacre, the U.S. and its allies would take the “responsibility to protect” seriously and consider intervention as a legitimate option. But, nearly two years later, what we didn’t do in Syria is more relevant than what we did do in Libya.

If I sound defeatist, then it is likely because I am. It is worth speaking frankly, and, unfortunately, this probably requires speaking in the past tense. For Syria, it is likely too late. Notwithstanding something sudden and entirely unexpected, the international community will not intervene. That does not mean that the Syrian people are doomed. They will likely “win” in the end, but their victory, if we can even call it that, will have come at a much greater cost – in the sheer number killed – than was likely necessary. It will have come at the cost of a country destroyed, of sects polarized beyond any hope of reconciliation, of Salafis and Jihadists ascendant, of a state too torn and divided for real governance. As has been reported elsewhere, the Syrian opposition feels that it has been not just forgotten, but, worse, betrayed. They are unlikely to forget this anytime soon. Anti-Americanism, a given among regime supporters, has slowly taken root among the opposition as well. The Syrian protest movement’s Friday theme for October 19, 2012 was “America, has your spite not been sated by our blood?” In due time, the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to act may be remembered as one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war. I only wish it wasn’t too late.