Why Syria is (still) different for the West

The drumbeat for war, or 'intervention,' in Syria continues to build, but it's still a dangerous proposition.

By , Staff writer

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    This image from amateur video shows rebel fighters in Daraa, Syria, Tuesday. Europe's decision to allow member states to arm Syrian rebels and Russia's renewed pledge to send advanced missiles to the Syria regime could spur an arms race in an already brutal civil war and increasingly turn it into a East-West proxy fight.
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The US position on Syria's civil war remains, in public at least, much as it has long been: The end of President Bashar al-Assad's rule via some sort of negotiated settlement between the rest of his regime and the patchwork of secular Syrians, mainstream Islamists, and jihadis fighting against him.

That's the premise for a conference the US, France, and Britain have been pushing for in Geneva next month. But recent battlefield gains for Mr. Assad's forces, a Russian promise of a delivery of advanced air defense systems to the government (which would make a US-led air campaign more dangerous), and a divided political leadership for the opposition all make it appear very unlikely that peace will break out next month in Switzerland. 

Put simply, the Syrian opposition has not come together in the way the US had hoped – not in its military composition, which now involves a lot of foreign travelers from a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, nor on the international diplomatic front, which is fraught with infighting and doubt about the worth of a conference far from the battlefield.

Meanwhile, members of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah continue to pour into Syria to fight for Assad, with Iranian and Russian military support for the regime lurking in the background. 

That's made the opposition in some ways almost as unattractive from a US perspective as Assad himself, and explains American reticence. But the fact remains that Assad has long been isolated and sanctioned by the US, and the civil war has claimed at least 80,000 lives so far, with cities like Homs and Aleppo reduced to rubble by the government's long-range shelling. 

Speaking today, Fred Hof, who resigned as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special representative on Syria last September, said: "This is a war Iran and Hezbollah have decided not to lose... we have not seen the same level of commitment from US."

Hypocritical US?-

But after decades of claims that US foreign policy is a "moral" one and calls for a US ready to end horrific wars after the genocide in Rwanda, some in Washington say the US looks hypocritical for not at least giving the rebels more advanced weapons and, perhaps, using air power to halt Assad's advances and give the rebels enough breathing room to regroup and win their war.

US Sen. John McCain, who darted across the Turkish border into rebel-held Syria on Monday, has been leading that charge. On a visit organized by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a pro-rebellion group based in Washington, he met with Free Syrian Army leaders. He met with Gen. Salim Idris, a Free Syria Army leader, who according to the group "asked that the United States increase its aid to the Free Syrian Army in the form of heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on Hezbollah."

Earlier this month Senator McCain said "the strategic and humanitarian costs of this conflict continue to be devastating" and called on the US to consider an "overt and large-scale operation to train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces" and said that "we could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria’s air defenses. Similar weapons could be used to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make Assad’s forces think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria from Assad's aerial bombing and missile attacks."

But is anyone in Washington listening? President Obama has been very cautious about getting more involved and today his administration poured water on a story in The Daily Beast yesterday that, citing "two administration officials," claimed that "The White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by the US and other countries, such as France and Great Britain."

USA Today quoted National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden this morning as saying: "I'm not going to discuss our internal deliberations, but we have said for many months that the administration is prepared for a variety of contingencies in Syria and all options are on the table."

That sounds about right. The Pentagon is always readying contingency plans in responses to conflict, particularly when it looks like US politicians might request action. It's safe to assume a variety of no-fly and no-drive zone plans have already been drawn up. Whether the US imposes any of them is a matter of politics, of course.

And as horrific as Syria is now for the people living through the war, the possibility of broadening the conflict, already spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq, to involve Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Israel (they have conducted airstrikes against what they alleged were attempted Assad weapons transfers to Hezbollah) would give any president pause. This is a far more dangerous situation than in Libya.

Where are the hawks?

But the push for war continues. In the Washington Post yesterday there was a curious news story about the dearth of "liberal hawks" who were bullish on the Iraq war speaking out in favor of armed US intervention in Syria – curious because it gives so little time to liberal hawks who are skeptical of armed intervention in Syria. In the long, three-page piece you have to read until the middle of the third page to find a supporter of the Iraq war who opposes a US war in Syria (the columnist Fareed Zakaria) being quoted (it is also only on the third screen that an overall critic of liberal interventionism, Stephen Walt of Harvard, is quoted).

But amid the burst in outside engagement, one influential group seems noticeably silent. The liberal hawks, a cast of prominent left-leaning intellectuals, played high-profile roles in advocating for American military intervention on foreign soil — whether for regime change or to prevent humanitarian disasters. They pressured President Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia, provided intellectual cover on the left for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and urged President Obama to engage in Libya. But even as the body count edges toward 100,000 in Syria and reports of apparent chemical-weapons use by Assad, liberal advocates for interceding have been rare, spooked perhaps by the traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and the clear reluctance of a Democratic president to get mired in the Middle East. Call them Syria’s mourning doves.

This is certainly true. There are fewer members of the US political, academic and journalistic establishments that support an armed US effort in Syria than did in Iraq. And the poor outcome of that war, which led to a sectarian civil war that claimed over 150,000 lives, certainly plays in to many calculations. But it isn't just that people feel burned by Iraq. Many people view the situation in Syria today particularly dangerous, with the likelihood of nasty effects in neighbors Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Israel. And the sectarian element of the conflict can't be denied.

It is not inherently inconsistent to support intervention in Libya, a tiny and far more homogenous country that had no powers standing behind it, and still be leery of one in Syria, where Iran and Russia back Assad. It is the specifics of Syria that must be taken on in making the case for war there – not potentially foolish appeals to consistency. 

Of windmills and donkeys

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center made the case for the US to give up what he describes as a "quixotic" effort to mold a Syrian opposition to its liking, and accept the Syrian opposition as it actually is. Writing in The Atlantic, he says it's a folly to wait "for a more perfect Syrian opposition" and appears to call for more arms for the rebellion, notwithstanding that it's armed component is "effectively dominated by Salafis and Islamists."

The original sin of US policy was taking military intervention off the table and focusing instead on a "political settlement," as if the two were mutually exclusive. Instead, intervention and diplomacy should have proceeded in parallel. It was only a credible threat of military action that would have brought the regime, or at least elements of it, to the negotiating table. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Serbian government gave up its ethnic cleansing campaign and agreed to Western terms only after NATO military intervention, not before...

It is a testament to the faith that the Syrian opposition still places in the United States that they are even willing to go to Geneva. They, and we, have been through this before, the cycle of hope, followed by disappointment and even betrayal. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still hope that American policy might change and adapt, after yet another round of diplomacy fails, as it almost certainly will.

In a series of tweets this morning, Hamid expanded on what he'd like to see happen, while also saying "in some ways, it's already too late for Syria." (he thinks the US should have gotten seriously involved 18 months ago, before the presence of jihadis within the insurgency grew.) He wrote the US should provide advanced weapons to the Free Syrian Army (the US has worried that such weapons, particularly portable anti-aircraft systems, could end up in the hands of jihadis), announce a deadline for the regime to step down and strikes against government and military installations (I originally misunderstood Hamid as meaning regime figures, he clarified later), and a "no-drive zone" imposed by air power if it does not comply. 

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