Shadi Hamid floats the possibility of arming the
contras Free Syrian Army:
If the opposition itself has chosen the military option — and this seems increasingly the case — then the question is this: Can a ragtag army of perhaps 10,000 Syrian rebels defeat an army that while, far from invincible, enjoys an overwhelming advantage in numbers, equipment and firepower? The opposition may have millions on their side, with Syrians continuing to protest en masse throughout the country. But it’s difficult to see anything less than a disastrous stalemate without the international community helping to tip the balance.
This is a view that still doesn’t make much sense to me. Is the goal of interventionists to facilitate the defeat of Assad’s regime, or is it to protect the civilian population? There may be cases where those two are compatible, but Syria doesn’t seem to be one of them. What would be the result of funding and arming the FSA? It would build up the militarily weaker side in a civil war, it would endorse a militarized solution to the crisis, and that would ensure that the war would be prolonged and intensified. Hamid claims that the civil war will intensify anyway, which may be true, but his proposed course of action would guarantee that outcome.
Fortunately, we don’t have to argue over what to call the conflict in Syria. Hamid acknowledges that Syria is “already in civil war.” During the debate over Libya, interventionists were eager to avoid using that label to describe the internal Libyan conflict over control of the state. Skeptics and opponents of intervention have an understandable aversion to picking favorites in other nations’ civil wars on the grounds that it is not our place to determine the outcome of an internal conflict in another country. Advocates for intervention in Syria can’t seem to make up their minds whether their priority is achieving the political result of opposition victory or limiting the violence in Syria for the benefit of the entire population. To justify intervening, they invoke the latter, but many of their proposals seem focused on the former.
Indeed, the reason why some interventionists are proposing military aid for the FSA is that the armed rebels will most likely fail without that aid. The danger that interventionists see is not really that there will be a “disastrous stalemate,” but that the opposition will lose. Interventionists are invoking the specter of the Lebanese civil war as a warning of what might happen if there is no support for the opposition, but what they propose seems more likely to put Syria through an experience very much like Lebanon’s. Even if it is a more limited, indirect intervention in support of Syrian rebels, that seems guaranteed to deepen the conflict and risk the fragmentation of the country into enclaves, which could in turn hasten the beginning of forced expulsions and massacres of populations.
Update: Pillar made some good related points in his post yesterday:
I agree with Pape that intervention in Syria would be unwise, but not just for now and not only because the struggle there has so far not shaped up in a way that has yielded, as he puts it, “a viable, low-casualty military solution.” Sectarian divisions in Syria would make the aftermath of even a low-cost regime-toppling intervention messier than Libya. The whole Alawite power structure, not just Assad and his family, would see themselves fighting not only for power but for their lives. Stirring this sectarian pot would, as happened with the Iraq War, set in motion more disturbances elsewhere in the region.
The United States should refrain from any such pot stirring and concentrate on areas in the region where its own current policies already are tipping the scales and associating the United States with local clients.