Why doesn’t President Obama just topple the Assad regime and be done with it? His narrow focus on chemical weapons has outraged critics of nearly all stripes. The humanitarian left is aghast that the United States is willing to allow Syrians to be wantonly slaughtered as long as it is done by non-chemical means. The neo-conservative right is appalled that the U.S. is willing to remain aloof as Iran and Hizballah tip the military balance toward the regime. Both demand a much greater escalation.
Alas, all of the escalation options that are so blithely bandied about seem to involve taking some dramatic option to tip the military balance (i.e. establishing a no-fly zone, sending sophisticated arms to the opposition, launching air strikes) and then standing back and assuming that things will get better. Following the famous routine from the TV program Seinfeld, this approach to military intervention might be called the “Yadda Yadda Yadda” doctrine. “We overthrow the Assad regime, and then yadda yadda yadda, there is stability and democracy in Syria.” But to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, they yadda yadda’d over the most important part: stabilization.
Thus, for example, Senator John McCain in a June 2013 speech advocated that “we could use our stand-off weapons, such as cruise missiles, to target Assad’s aircraft and ballistic missile launchers on the ground. We could enable a provisional government to establish itself in a safe zone in Syria that we could help to protect with Patriot missiles. And we could organize a full-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces.” But he said not a word about what the U.S. could do if and when the Assad government fell.
Similarly, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of State Policy Planning under Secretary Hillary Clinton, in a February 2013 New York Times article proposed creating “no-kill zones”, expanding enclaves of non-violence that would protect Syrian citizens from the Syrian regime and eventually isolate Syrian government forces. But she devotes no space to the more difficult planning problem of creating a stable Syria.
Both should know by now that amateurs do regime change; professionals do stabilization. Recent US experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya demonstrated that the United States is incredibly good at the historically difficult task of overthrowing a government. But they also demonstrate that regime change is not enough. The United States cannot achieve its goals for military intervention without an effective stabilization policy.
In Iraq, the U.S. tried stabilization through a large American presence. In Afghanistan, the U.S. stood up a NATO-led effort that incorporated a U.S. and allied presence. In Libya, the U.S. left the task to indigenous actors with UN help. The common feature of all three efforts is that none of them worked. In no case did the United States or the international community succeed in following up regime change with a viable strategy for stabilizing the country, establishing the rule of law, and building up an effective and democratic system of governance.
Given the inherent risks and the poor recent record, the burden of proof is on those who advocate military intervention to explain how this would improve the lot of the Syrian people and advance U.S. interests. The Hippocratic injunction to “first, do no harm,” should be scrupulously respected. There is nothing particularly moral (let alone strategic) about plunging a country into greater chaos even if in the process you remove a brutal dictator. In this vein, we should not blithely assume that, simply because present circumstances are very bad, the situation cannot get any worse. The United States should only intervene in Syria if we are confident that our strategy – including a stabilization plan – will produce an environment more hospitable to U.S. interests and those of the Syrian people.
In that vein, any responsible plan that calls for military intervention in Syria must describe how we intend to stabilize the country should we succeed. There are a number of elements of a stabilization strategy without which instability becomes a virtual certainty. And, to make matters more difficult, these components are interdependent – failure on one tends to undermine on progress on others. Nowhere does Robert Burns’s well-worn quote, “The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy!,” seem more appropriate than when examining America’s record on stabilization.
For those bold, if not foolish, enough to try their hand at stabilization in Syria, their plan must have the following elements:
- A Mechanism for Coordinating International Assistance: Major stabilization efforts rarely lack for outside cash assistance, but the various donors tend to spend their money wastefully, without coordination and in a manner that overwhelms the indigenous capacity.
- A Plan for Rebuilding Infrastructure and Ensuring the Continuity of Institutions: The legitimacy of any new government will be compromised, perhaps fatally, if it fails to provide the most basic services to its population, a trend we have seen emerge in Libya.
- A Transitional Process: A defined political process that includes establishing an interim government, drafting a new constitution, and holding elections. This requires a balance between best practice and the preferences/capacity of the country, which the United States always has struggled to strike.
- A Mechanism for Resolving Political Differences. Beyond the transitional process, there needs to be some agreed procedure – even if informal – for addressing disputes in a peaceful and orderly manner.
While the U.S. has struggled to address all of these elements, the most vexing has proven to be the political process. The irony of previous attempts at stabilization is that, for all of America’s supposed influence, the U.S. has had extraordinary difficulty influencing the factions it assisted – much less those who suffered most from the fall of the regime – after the deed is done. Once the United States has elected to assist a party or movement, it acquires a stake in its success for both practical and reputational reasons. This severely complicates the American ability to threaten to suspend or reduce assistance, in theory a powerful source of leverage, for fear of undermining “our guy.” Ultimately – no matter how hard the United States tries – it cannot mandate inclusivity or consensus-building, elements without which any system will fail to function.
In Syria, however, there are good reasons to suspect that stabilization will be particularly difficult and that any post-Assad regime will be no better (and perhaps even worse) than its predecessor in terms of U.S. strategic objectives of stability and the promotion of human rights.
Should Assad fall, the most likely scenario is the fracturing of the state into a series of semi-autonomous, semi-governed satrapies. Seeking to consolidate and expand their authority, these statelets may face incentives for adventurism. As we saw with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a reputation for inflicting pain on Israel can do wonders for your domestic position in the Arab world. Indeed, we should be careful not to assume the deterrence relationship Israel has established with Assad’s Syria will automatically convey to the next rulers. These competing authorities will also be dependent and vulnerable to the machinations of outside actors, both within the region and without, and could set off an even more fierce competition for regional supremacy than we have heretofore seen. Rather than a chastened Iran confined to Lebanon (as advocates of regime change assume), we may wind up with an injured and cornered Iran prone to lashing out at the first provocation.
Even if the new leadership manages to hold the state together, there are strong reasons to question both their overall competence and the direction in which they would lead the country. As in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, groups that have long been denied power face a steep learning curve upon entering office. Syria’s new leadership probably would not understand the machinery and process of the state foreign policy apparatus as well as the full extent of Syria’s interests and obligations. Under ideal circumstances, this would just produce a few embarrassments and minor misunderstandings. But, in the crucible Syria has occupied for the past 2 ½ years, it is far more likely to yield serious miscalculations and create opportunities for spoilers to wreak havoc. And, this all assumes fairly benign intentions. If extremists come to dominate the new state, which is at the very least plausible, post-Assad Syrian foreign policy could become explicitly and intentionally destabilizing.
At least intervention would staunch the human rights violations, right? Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and again, the opposition to the Assad regime is not beyond reproach. Beheadings, mass killings, arbitrary murders, systematic discrimination, and even a televised episode of cannibalism have all occurred and, in the aftermath of the fall of the regime, the temptation to indulge vengeance – at the individual and group levels – may prove irresistible. In a zero-sum context characterized by severe insecurity and the accumulation of grievances, even the moderates can get caught up in score settling and outrights plays for power. In this sense, the ongoing debate about the relative size of extremists within the opposition is academic. Whether they are 5%, 10%, or 25%, the well-established existence of extremist groups only adds to an already precarious situation, rather than creating one.
The Bottom Line
Any escalation the United States undertake should pass the test of improving the situation for the Syrian people and must also take into account the long-term human, financial, and political costs for us, Syria, and the region. Otherwise, as bad as the situation is, intervention can make it worse. Avoiding that will require innovative thinking on stabilization because recent previous efforts, even those with ample resources have not worked. So far no one has produced such a plan. And anything else is just comedy.
Walking away from Brexit with no deal doesn’t mean that nothing happens. It means you have significant rupture in all the existing arrangements.