Over the weekend in Geneva, world powers penned a vague agreement to support the establishment of a transitional government in Syria – potentially composed of members of the opposition and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The purported solution appears ill fitted to the reality on the ground, however, and a new Human Rights Watch report details widespread, systematic torture by the Assad regime.
Direct intervention is quickly appearing to be the only feasible means for halting gross human rights violations, stabilizing the conflict, and ensuring a sustainable transition.
The Geneva proposal, which was agreed upon by the United States, Russia, China, the Arab League, the European Union, and others, makes calls for a state of equilibrium and transition without providing a definitive road map to such a state. This crippling ambiguity may be an inevitable result of Russia’s support for, and Western nations’ opposition of, the Assad regime. Given those differences, however, it is difficult to imagine how such an ambiguity can be corrected.
Regrettably, the scale of the atrocities in Syria to date, the lack of buy-in from key opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army, and the vagaries of this last-ditch proposal make any prospect for peaceful co-existence between Assad and Syria’s population remote.
Poignantly, the Assad regime has reportedly engaged in war crimes for which it must eventually be held to account, and stands to lose the political and economic hegemony that underlies its existence. The opposition, in turn, foresees a future under Assad in which it would be subjected to even more repressive and humiliating strictures.
In short, both sides of the Syrian conflict appear to be nearing, if they have not already crossed, a point of no return into a zero-sum fight for their very survival. In such a climate, the Geneva agreement offers no reasonable means for setting the conditions necessary to a peaceful settlement, and any means short of intervention seem increasingly unlikely to do so.
To be certain, America cannot act as a global policeman that deploys troops to every crisis-ridden situation. An ill-defined principle of intervention could stretch our forces and resources too thin to be effective while still responsibly honoring our core national security priorities. But whatever principle is most appropriate, it seems clear that the increasingly common atrocities in Syria would be well beyond its threshold for tolerance.
What would tactically constitute the most effective way to intervene is a question for military experts. In the face of negligible commitments to human dignity by China and Russia, their ability to block UN Security Council action, and the likelihood that Russia is actually aiding the Syrian regime, it is arguable that a smaller group of nations will have to find a way to stop further destabilization.
Nonetheless, there are significant reasons to hesitate when considering intervention in Syria. No doubt, the specter of Iraq’s civil conflict, the rise of a potentially intolerant and abusive strain of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the infighting in Libya must haunt the thoughts of those responsible for such a decision. There are counterpoints to these legitimate concerns, however.
With respect to the legacy of Iraq, an overwhelming show of force in Syria now (whether through properly focused assistance or more direct allied action) could eliminate the most dangerous actors within Syria: groups who would seek to create the type of prolonged conflict suffered by Iraqis. Immediate action could also dissuade parties who are still riding the fence from choosing sides and violently engaging.
In addition, concerns about the identity of the resistance movement are well founded. A responsible intervention requires that the US and its allies understand which elements of the resistance would ensure the implementation of an open, democratic governance structure. Clearly, moreover, it is unacceptable to abet attacks on civilians such as those in which some elements of the opposition have allegedly engaged. But there are ways to focus assistance on the most promising allies while constraining the influence of Salafist or other radical ideologues.
Finally, options exist to address post regime-change infighting such as we have seen in Libya. For starters, transition governments, and the international community on whose assistance they often depend, must ensure that robust law enforcement and judicial institutions can act to immediately contain local unrest. Doing so will channel disputes about the future of the country, which might otherwise turn violent, towards legitimate, political forums.
Ensuring the end of the Assad regime, if done properly, also has strategic benefits for the US that policymakers should consider. In Muslim societies, the concept of justice enjoys a place of hallowed reverence akin to the idea of freedom in the United States. Demonstrating an unwavering commitment to justice in defense of Syria’s civilians could build goodwill that would pay big dividends as a new government emerges after Assad is gone.
Moreover, this commitment to toppling the Assad regime could help sever the lifeline, running through Syria, between Hezbollah and its patron, Iran. Finally, removing Assad from Syria would further isolate Iran, providing timely leverage against one of America’s greatest foes.
A decision to intervene in Syria is complex and daunting. Yet, the escalating atrocities, the remote likelihood for a negotiated settlement in the current state of conflict, and the numerous strategic benefits, provide sufficient grounds for the US and a group of allies to act. No people will tolerate the intolerable forever, and the people of Syria will eventually see that justice is done in their homeland. America and other nations of goodwill would do well to ensure they have our full support.
Brock Dahl is a former US Treasury Department official who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently an attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He has authored numerous articles on transitional societies and conflict. The views expressed herein are his own, and do not reflect those of his current or former employers.