No, America Still Shouldn’t Intervene on Behalf of the Syrian Rebels
Syria's civil war turns 10 and hawks think it's time to start undermining Assad again.
Last week marked one year since the coronavirus was declared a national emergency here in America. Yet there was another grisly milestone that came and went mostly unnoticed: the 10-year anniversary of the Syrian Civil War. The conflict between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Syrian rebellion has been one of the bloodiest of the 21st century, killing up to half a million people while devastating major population centers like Homs and Aleppo. And even though Assad has for all intents and purposes won, fighting continues throughout pockets of the country where rebels have managed to maintain a presence.
These holdouts have given hope to hawks like Josh Rogin, a foreign policy columnist at the Washington Post. Rogin last week took stock of the wreckage in Syria and decided that what’s really needed is for the United States to start undermining Assad again. “The Syrian revolution is not over,” he declared. And “the first priority of the Biden administration” should be to bolster it through a series of interventions.
Rogin gets off to a dodgy start when he pronounces that “the regime of President Bashar al-Assad unleashed the worst systematic atrocities since the Nazis.” He cites as evidence for this an assessment by Stephen Rapp, the State Department’s former ambassador-at-large for war crimes, but he still hangs an awful lot of weight on that word “systematic.” Assad is a murderous dictator and an evil war criminal, no question. But worse than the Soviets, the Maoists, the Cambodians, the North Koreans, the Ugandans, the Interahamwe? Really?
Rogin then notes that “Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners control roughly two-thirds of the country,” a consolidation he refers to as a “rump state.” What he doesn’t delve into is who controls that remaining third. Much of the Syrian northeast is in the hands of Kurds who harbor separatist ambitions. And while a small part of the country is governed by rebels, they administer only a single major population center: Idlib. That province is run not by democrats but by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist group that emerged out of Syria’s former al-Qaeda franchise. In fairness, Tahrir al-Sham has reportedly moderated in recent years. And even back in 2017, Brett McGurk, the former Trump administration official, was probably overstating his case when he called Idlib “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11” (Yemen, anyone?). Still, these are not friends of the United States and we should not pretend otherwise.
In which case, the question posed by Rogin’s anti-Assad fist-pumping is the same as ever: cui bono? Who benefits from an American intervention on behalf of the rebels? One answer has remained consistent throughout much of the war: Islamic extremists. Such Salafists flooded into Syria to fight the hated Alawite Assad regime and in some cases even treated themselves to our weapons. This radicalization of the rebellion has been trending for the better part of eight years. The idea that we’re going to reverse it now, that we’re somehow going to pinpoint and advantage those elusive moderates, is pure fantasy.
Yet Rogin goes on: “Imagine if the United States led an international effort to help those Syrians Assad doesn’t rule over by giving them supplies, pandemic relief and economic support, while using sanctions smartly to deny Assad the ability to profit from his crimes or replenish his war machine.” This, he says, would give Syrian dissidents the leverage they need to “negotiate a just peace and boost Washington’s leverage when dealing with Moscow or Tehran.” Would it though? The Assad regime has proven largely impervious to any attempts at a “just peace”; its goal from the start has been to win back as much of Syria as possible through whatever brutal means it deems necessary. And how does the United States effectively distribute pandemic relief to disparate Syrians when it’s struggling to vaccinate its own people?
Rogin’s call for sanctions is unsurprising, given that sanctions are viewed by many in the commentariat as the magic wand in our foreign policy toolkit. Just point, wave, and problem solved. Accordingly Rogin never makes clear how exactly sanctions are supposed to damage Assad and avail the rebels. And that really is the question. Make sanctions too targeted and they tend to get shrugged off. Make them too thick and comprehensive and you end up with Iran, where the people we’re supposedly trying to help are dying en masse from the coronavirus thanks to an economy that’s been walled off. In any case, the United States has been slapping sanctions on Syria for years. And given that the reconstruction of that country is likely to be led by the Russians and Chinese, not us, they don’t matter as much as we think they do.
Whatever happens, though, Rogin would like us to know that Syria is not another Iraq. “The easiest way to dismiss the call for action in Syria,” he writes, “is to present it as a false choice between a full-blown Iraq-style military invasion and doing nothing.” The occupation of Iraq was a failure, which is why even hawks want to avoid its shadow. But it’s not like any of the halfway-house options inspire much confidence either. The Cuban embargo did not dislodge the Castros. Arms shipments did not propel the Syrian rebels into Damascus. History is littered with well-intentioned foreign aid efforts that simply didn’t work. Why should it be any different in a country as fractured and difficult as Syria?
Right now, Syria’s biggest problem isn’t our refusal to help the rebellion; it’s an economic crisis, caused in part by the war, in part by our wonderful sanctions, and in part by a banking meltdown in neighboring Lebanon. This recession has afflicted much of the country, not just the rebel holdouts glorified by Rogin. It’s a serious problem, yet as is so often the case, there just isn’t that much we can do about it.