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Ignoring the Possible Costs of Syrian Intervention

James Jeffrey lays out some of possible negative consequences of intervention in Syria, and then advises that the U.S. ignore them:

The potential for a Russian, Chinese, or Iranian backlash should not deter Washington from taking necessary military action in Syria. Middle Eastern stability is a key U.S. interest and helping Syria to the best possible soft landing is central to our security role, as is living up to our red line threat on chemical weapons use. Shrinking from that responsibility could, in fact, bolster our detractors’ self-confidence and embolden them: If Assad somehow survives, the rise in Iranian prestige and loss of ours could even prompt Moscow and Beijing, smelling blood, to up the ante against Washington. The Obama administration thus needs to think geostrategically in Syria; more Metternich than Wilson.

For what it’s worth, Jeffrey probably overstates the case for Russian and Chinese “backlash.” Contrary to what he says, neither has especially “deep stakes” in Assad’s survival. They may prefer that outcome, and they may be willing to provide some diplomatic and political cover to that end, but it is not that likely that either of them would retaliate in the way that Jeffrey describes. The possibility that either of them might do so is yet another reason to be wary of dragging the U.S. deeper into the Syrian conflict, but it is still a remote one. Jeffrey identifies U.S. interests as regional stability and “helping Syria to the best possible soft landing.” Neither of these is served by the U.S. military action that Jeffrey assumes to be “increasingly likely,” but this doesn’t seem to discourage him. The fascinating thing about this article is that Jeffrey can readily imagine all the ways that intervention in Syria could backfire and undermine U.S. policies elsewhere, but then dismisses them as irrelevant to the calculation of whether the U.S. should take “necessary” military action. (Jeffrey takes for granted that military action in Syria is “necessary” when that is exactly what it isn’t.) What is the point of detailing the potential pitfalls of starting a new war when the author insists that government officials should not not be dissuaded by them?

If the administration were being “more Metternich than Wilson,” they probably wouldn’t endorse a policy designed to overthrow an existing government. If Assad managed to hang on to power, Iranian prestige would not be on the rise. Why would it rise? In that case, Iran would have avoided a setback, but it wouldn’t have gained anything. “Success” in keeping Assad in power for a little while longer might create a longer-term headache for Iran in its relations with other regional powers, and propping up Assad might become an ongoing drain on Iranian resources that ends up costing Tehran more than it gains from the relationship. The U.S. might be embarrassed by Assad’s survival after calling for his removal, but Russia and China wouldn’t be “smelling” our “blood,” since the U.S. wouldn’t have actually lost anything.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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