As usual, an argument for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s conflict ignores that the proposed measures for intervention will make the worst possible consequences of the conflict more likely:
The Obama administration should throw in its lot more firmly with the opposition, both civilian and military. It needs to stop talking about what it won’t do and start discussing what it might do differently to end the bloodshed. This will make the regime’s downfall — and a transition to a stable, more democratic country — more likely.
Specifically, the authors call for recognizing the Syrian National Council as the “transitional authority” for Syria, coordinating arms supplies from other unnamed states, and finally providing “its own arms, training and intelligence.” They hold out the possibility of imposing so-called “no-drive” and “no-fly” zones in the future, and they want the administration to consider these options publicly while also conferring with NATO about them. Publicly considering measures that one obviously has no intention of using is just an empty bluff, and it would be seen as such. Most, if not all, NATO governments are opposed to becoming directly involved in Syria’s conflict. There wouldn’t be many NATO governments willing (or able) to participate.
The measures the authors propose might or might not hasten regime “destruction,” but they would all but guarantee that the conflict intensifies and that it continues longer than it probably otherwise could. As for their concern about an intensified proxy war, the authors are effectively advocating that the U.S. assist in actively waging an intensified proxy war by helping unnamed “third countries” provide arms to “secular elements.” They don’t explain why an intensified proxy war between the U.S. and Iran will be less destabilizing for the region. They do not identify which “third countries” would want to provide arms only to the “secular elements” of the Syrian opposition. Perhaps this is because the governments most likely to provide arms to the opposition have no interest in supporting only the “secular elements.”
All of this is intended to hasten “the destruction of the regime.” The destruction of the regime probably makes a transition to a stable future political order just as unlikely as it would be otherwise. Regime “destruction” makes it more likely that Syria becomes a failed state. The authors describe many of the evils that a failed state in Syria could produce:
A failed state in Syria is likely to spill over into Iraq and Lebanon and spur debilitating refugee flows to Turkey and other neighbors. It will intensify a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies and Iran. A Syrian collapse would create a fundamentalist threat to Israel’s sense of security and heighten the danger of miscalculation or conflict.
All of these seem to be more or less plausible effects of a failed state in Syria, so the question for the authors is this: why do you want the U.S. to contribute to such an outcome? Destroying the Syrian regime would have destabilizing effects on all of Syria’s neighbors, so why should the U.S. want to add to regional instability? What the authors propose is almost certainly not going to prevent these things. As Daniel Trombly noted recently:
It’s entirely possible that waging a proxy war in Syria gets you a long civil war and a collapsed state afterwards either way.
As interventionists often do, the authors overstate the benefits:
The destruction of the Assad regime — which may be weakening, as military defections, including that of Gen. Manaf Tlas, son of the regime’s former defense minister, increase — would raise the prospect of another country moving toward democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Removing a key ally from Iran’s grasp could tip the balance of power in Lebanon and weaken the Iranian leadership. And breaking the Tehran-Damascus alliance on Iraq’s east and west borders might assist Iraq in its struggle toward democracy.
The first and last claims are the least credible. A post-Baathist Syria might start “moving toward democracy,” but more likely it would end up having a semi-authoritarian and majoritarian government not so different from the one in Iraq. Such a Syrian government would be anti-Iranian in orientation, but that wouldn’t necessarily change the political balance in Lebanon. Iraq’s “struggle toward democracy” (such as it is) probably wouldn’t be affected. The emergence of a Sunni majoritarian government on its border might make the current Iraqi government very wary of its neighbor and cause it to consolidate even more power into its hands to the detriment of Iraq’s Sunni minority. If the Syrian regime falls, Iraq becomes a natural candidate to serve as Iran’s new Arab ally. Iran’s regional influence would suffer a setback, but it wouldn’t be quite the crippling blow that interventionists keep predicting.