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The Serious Flaws in the Argument for Syrian Intervention

Sens. Carl Levin and Angus King make their pitch [1] for intervention in Syria, and they issue the usual dire warnings of what “inaction” will mean:

Assad’s survival, with support from Iran and Hezbollah, would surely strengthen them, to our great detriment [bold mine-DL]. If Assad breaches the international consensus against the use of chemical weapons without repercussions, the United States — and every other nation — will be less secure.

These are common claims in pro-intervention arguments, but it can’t be emphasized enough that neither of them makes any sense. Assad’s survival won’t mean that Iran and Hizbullah have been strengthened, but only that they have not suffered an even larger reversal. If Assad survives, he will be in a much weaker position than he was two years ago, and his allies will be worse off than they once were. I don’t share the hawkish obsession with limiting Iranian influence, but it’s hard to see how this is to our detriment, much less “our great detriment.” If the positions were reversed, no one would claim that the U.S. had been strengthened by propping up a client government in the face of a major rebellion. The fact that the client ruler had merely survived the rebellion wouldn’t be taken as proof that the U.S. position was improving. This would be seen as an ongoing drain of American resources, and the client relationship itself would probably start to be perceived as being more trouble than it was worth.

Any use of chemical weapons is atrocious, but it’s far from clear that the U.S. and other states have been made less secure by the reported use of these weapons by regime forces in Syria. What would make many other nations less secure is the regime’s loss of control of its chemical arsenal, and that becomes more likely if the U.S. follows Levin and King’s recommendations and provides weapons to the rebels and starts bombing Syria. If the concern is to reduce the chances that terrorist organizations acquire chemical weapons, Levin and King’s proposed policy would do just the opposite. Since they specifically rule out ground forces in Syria under any circumstances, they aren’t proposing that the U.S. secure these weapons. The claim that their proposal has something to do with securing the U.S. and other countries against chemical weapons use falls apart under the least scrutiny.

The stability argument may be the least persuasive part of the pro-intervention case. Direct U.S. military action in a foreign conflict typically has destabilizing effects on the country in question and on its neighbors. Bombing targets in Syria will add to the civilian death toll, and it will cause people to flee from those areas that are coming under attack, which would further add to the numbers of the internally displaced and refugees. This would not lessen regional instability caused by the conflict, but would in all likelihood exacerbate it. If the U.S. is concerned most of all with the stability of Syria’s neighbors, it would be a terrible mistake to do what Levin and King recommend.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "The Serious Flaws in the Argument for Syrian Intervention"

#1 Comment By James Canning On July 19, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

Iran and Hezbollah would prefer better relations with the US. As would the Syrian gov’t.

#2 Comment By Gordon Hanson On July 19, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

You don’t have to wade very deep into foreign policy speak on the part of US politicians to encounter tremendous hyperbole. Here Mr. Larison highlights yet another example of such hyperbole. I propose that the Russell Senate Office Building be renamed the Chicken Little Office Building.

#3 Comment By Northern Observer On July 19, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

The United States is out of its mind when it supports any Sunni regime. Saudi Arabia is playing a long game whose objective is the Islamization of the planet – what are we doing to counter that? Say what you will against the Shia but they have two virtues. First, their theology seems more amenable to a live and let live philosophy in-spite of Khomeni’s attempts to turn it into a revolutionary doctrine, second Shiism helps keep the Arabian hegemon in check. Why America would think that it is in its interest to tilt the balance of power in the ME in favour of the Arabians amazes me. I dislike anti Israeli statements and theories but here it seems to be that the Islamic regime that complains about Israel the least gets the free pass – forget about all the hell Saudi Arabia is raising in the rest of the World with its Salafi schools and imams, Ryhad stays quiet on Israel so we don’t treat them as a threat. Stupid.

#4 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On July 19, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

The key point is the distinction between occasional use of chemical weapons, and the régime’s loss of control of them. The former is nasty–although the efficacy of such weapons is overrated–but it is the latter that in fact threatens stability.

By casually making statements (“Assad must go”) and drawing red lines, Obama has given fodder to the warmongers, neocon and liberal interventionist alike.

#5 Comment By a spencer On July 19, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

>>Assad’s survival, with support from Iran and Hezbollah, would surely strengthen them


What does Hezbollah get out of this that it doesn’t already have? Assad is irreparably damaged; even if he stays in power, how on earth does he pull that country together? How is Iran served by a weakened Syria?

Unless the Senators are forecasting that massive numbers of Wahhabis are going to become Sufis overnight.