Syrian crisis: the case for the US to intervene now – or not

Senate hawks urge a swift US military response to Syria's deepening conflict, citing humanitarian concerns and US security interests, including the regime's chemical weapons. Critics ask: Is it possible to end the fighting on acceptable terms?

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
An empty street is pictured in central Aleppo, Syria, Friday, August 10.

With stepped-up calls for an American intervention in Syria, will US military policy change toward a country increasingly being plunged into violence and chaos?

Top lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee have warned that it must, because the more quickly the rebels win their battle, the better it is for US interests.

“Because we have refused to provide the rebels the assistance that would tip the military balance decisively against [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad, the United States is increasingly seen across the Middle East as acquiescing to the continued slaughter of Arab and Muslim civilians,” wrote Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

They concluded in their letter, “This reluctance to lead will, we fear – like our failure to stop the slaughter of the Kurds and Shiites under Saddam Hussein in Iraq or of the Tutsis in Rwanda – haunt our nation for years to come.” 

Their reasons for intervention go beyond the purely philanthropic. 

The US has “significant” national-security interests at stake in Syria, the lawmakers argue – interests, they add, that considerably surpass those in Libya.

“These include preventing the use or transfer of the regime’s massive chemical- and biological-weapons stockpiles – a real and growing danger – and ensuring that Al Qaeda and its violent brethren are unable to secure a new foothold in the heart of the Middle East,” they said.

Yet before deciding whether or not to intervene, James Dobbins, a Pentagon adviser and director of International and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp., said that policymakers should answer a couple of key questions: “Has the violence reached a level that both justifies and provides broad international support for intervention? Is there a reasonable prospect that such an intervention could succeed in ending the fighting on acceptable terms?” 

Unless the answers to these questions are yes, he said in testimony earlier this month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “external military intervention to stop the fighting is unlikely.” 

That said, sufficient justification for military intervention does not automatically translate into practical feasibility, he added: “Peace-enforcement operations in Syria would be quite demanding.” 

That’s because Syria “has a reasonably well-equipped and, so far, largely loyal army, relatively modern air defenses, and a large arsenal of chemical weapons,” Mr. Dobbins warned. “It has at least one ally, Iran, and some support from Russia.” 

As a result, “I do not think that the United States should get out in front of the Syrian opposition, the Arab League, the major regional powers, and its European allies in publicly championing [intervention]," Dobbins said. “But I do believe that still-escalating violence in Syria will generate more serious consideration of an external intervention in each of these quarters. I believe the United States should not resist such a flow, but instead begin quietly trying to channel it, as the Obama administration ultimately did with respect to Libya.”

Indeed, the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya has become a model that even Republican lawmakers point to as a quintessential symbol of US military success.

What’s more, the US relationships “with armed groups inside Syria now will be indispensable going forward,” the three senators added. 

For this reason, they suggest a US military strategy of reinforcing de facto rebel safe zones in some parts of Syria. “This would not require any US troops on the ground but could involve limited use of our airpower and other unique US assets,” they wrote.

Yet deepening US involvement would also mean, they acknowledged, accepting no small US military risks “in the profoundly complex and vicious conflict.” 

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