Why We Have a Responsibility to Protect Syria

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.

I was an early supporter of military intervention in Libya. I called for a no-fly zone on February 23, just 8 days after protests began. Now, we’re nearly 300 days into the Syrian uprising. Very few analysts, myself included, have publicly called for foreign intervention, even though the Syrian regime has proven both more unyielding and more brutal than Muammar Qaddafi’s.

Steven Cook, in a recent and controversial piece, made the case for the military option in Syria. I agree with much of Cook’s article but not all of it. Emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective, I agree with all of it. The risks of intervention, however, are tremendous. Marc Lynch has made the most persuasive case for caution. So I find myself torn.

It may make sense, then, to revisit the reasons I, and several others including Lynch, broke ranks with our colleagues on the left and supported the NATO operation in Libya. First, American policymakers should—as a matter of principle—take Arab public opinion seriously. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, there were no widespread calls among Iraqis themselves for us, or anyone else, to intervene militarily. In Libya, there were. The Libyan rebels were practically begging us to step in with military force.

In recent months, a rapidly growing number of Syrian activists, both on the ground and those in exile, have called forcefully and repeatedly for some form of foreign intervention, whether through the establishment of no-fly zones, no-drive zones, humanitarian corridors, “safe zones,” or through the arming of rebel forces such as the Free Syrian Army. 

The Syrian National Council, the most important Syrian opposition body and the closest analogue to Libya’s National Transitional Council, has unequivocally called for foreign intervention. Its leaders have repeatedly issued such calls to the international community in similarly clear language. The same goes for Syrian activists on the ground. Each week, they agree on a theme for the Friday protests that take place across the country. On Friday, October 28, the protests were dubbed, again rather unambiguously, “no-fly zone Friday.” We can’t—and shouldn’t—endorse something just because a country’s opposition wants us to, but we do need to take their calls seriously, particularly because they happen to be directed to us.

As I argued in a recent article in The New Republic, Arab protesters and revolutionaries, despite their often passionate dislike of U.S. policy, continue to turn to us for support in their time of need. This should not be taken lightly. In a time when millions of Arabs are demanding and dying for their freedom, the United States finds itself in a privileged role. Because of who we are, what we claim to aspire to—and, of course, our unparalleled military capability—we often, for both better and worse, have the power to tip the balance one way or the other.

The clichéd refrain that the Arab uprisings are about “them” and not “us” seems to treat Western powers as innocent bystanders, which they aren’t and haven’t been for five decades. International factors have been critical in the majority of countries facing unrest, including Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. In short, U.S. support for democracy matters and will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. In some countries, it will matter a great deal.

Some critics of the Libya intervention feared it would set a precedent. I hoped it would set a precedent—that whenever pro-democracy protesters were threatened with massacre, the U.S., Europe, and its allies would take the responsibility to protect seriously, and consider military intervention as a legitimate option—provided that those on the ground asked us to do so.

Unfortunately, one successful case of military intervention—in Libya—is not enough to establish a precedent. For too long, the Syrian regime has assumed, correctly it turns out, that Libya was the exception that proved the rule. Obama administration officials have said as much, insisting that the military option is not being seriously considered for Syria.

To be sure, one should always look at Western intervention in Arab lands with some degree of skepticism. The United States has a tragic history in the region, supporting repressive dictatorships for over 50 years with rather remarkable consistency. But where there is sin there is also atonement. 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. Libya provided us an opportunity to begin the difficult work of re-orienting U.S. foreign policy, to align ourselves, finally, with our own ideals.

For me, Syria is part of this bigger debate; what role does the United States seek for itself in a rapidly changing world, a world in which activists and rebels still long for an America that will recognize the struggle and come to the aid of their revolutions? The rising democracies of Brazil and India cannot offer this. Russia and China certainly cannot.

Hastening Bashar al-Assad’s fall, aside from being the right thing to do, would also be squarely in our self-interest. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis would be destroyed. Iran would find itself significantly weakened without its traditional entry point into the Arab world. Hezbollah, dependent on both Iranian and Syrian military and financial support, would also suffer. A democratic Syria, meanwhile, would likely be more in line with U.S. interests. In a free election, a reconstituted Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would stand a good chance of winning a plurality of seats. As I’ve written previously, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has had the distinction of being one of the region’s fiercest opponents of Iranian hegemony.  

In short, whether based on ideals or interests, the case for intervention is strong. I am not, however, a military specialist. I cannot say whether military intervention would work. Considering all the variables at play, it could turn into a terrible mess, perhaps more terrible than it already is.

Indeed, there are a number of reasons why intervention, today, would be premature (Michael Weiss runs through some of them in his excellent article in Foreign Affairs). But it may not be premature in a month or in two. The international community must begin considering a variety of military options — the establishment of “safe zones” seems the most plausible—and determine which enjoys the highest likelihood of causing more good than harm. This is now — after nearly a year of waiting and hoping—the right thing to do. It is also the responsible thing to do.