Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Syrians are fond of saying that their country is “the beating heart of the Arab world,” having played an outsize role in the history and politics of the region, from the Islamic golden age in the 7th century and the Arab Revolt during World War I to the Arab-Israeli wars. After 21 / 2 years of civil conflict, however, it is becoming more difficult to think of Syria as the spirit and soul of the region.
Among the catalogue of horrors that Bashar al-Assad and his supporters have perpetrated against their people, the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta on Aug. 21 is particularly egregious. The consensus in Washington is that this violation of international norms — like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 23 summers ago — requires a military response. The Assad regime must be punished, and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un must be made to think long and hard before they resort to weapons of mass destruction, too. This view may be principled, but the Obama administration and its allies should understand that even limited intervention would hasten Syria’s demise.
There was a moment early in the Syrian crisis when one could imagine that foreign intervention would have had salutary effects. In January 2012, I wrote that it was “time to think seriously about intervening in Syria” and laid out moral and strategic arguments in a piece for the Atlantic’s Web site.
Syria’s political history, the record of the Assad family and the routine way in which the regime used coercion and force to ensure its security all supported the notion that Assad would kill his way out of his troubles. In 1982, when Hafez al-Assad was in power and his son Bashar was 17 years old, the regime pounded the rebellious city of Hama into submission, murdering an estimated 20,000 people in the process. By late 2011, Bashar al-Assad’s security forces were killing peaceful protesters. His phony commitments to reform notwithstanding, it was clear that the younger Assad had adopted his father’s strategy to reestablish control.
At that time, the conflict had killed 5,000 people, the vast majority at the hands of the regime. This was more than Moammar Gaddafi had killed on the eve of NATO operations in Libya. If Libyans deserved protection, then Syrians did, too. And it seemed that only military intervention of some type, rather than the chimera of a diplomatic-political solution, would prevent the bloodletting that was sure to come. Helping to bring down Assad also would contribute to the long-standing U.S. goal of isolating Iran, or at least make it more difficult for Tehran to stir up trouble in the Arab world.
That was then, about 95,000 deaths ago and before about 10 percent of the Syrian population fled the country. It was also before the present pathologies took hold. The Syrian civil war was formerly an uprising against the brutality of a despot. It has become a battle among sects and ethnicities over which group of Syrians should control the country; part of a fight for regional leadership involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran; and an extension of the battlefield on which al-Qaeda affiliates carry out their messianic violence.
The complex and dreadful evolution of the conflict has shaken the moral and strategic justifications for intervention, even a short one focused on punishing the regime for its use of chemical weapons and deterring future use.
The Obama administration has sought to limit the American response to Syria’s civil war, cognizant of domestic opposition to U.S. involvement and the fact that this president ran for office on the promise that he would disentangle the United States from Middle East conflicts. It realizes, too, that as much as Assad and his allies are despised in the Middle East, Washington’s use of force against yet another Arab and predominantly Muslim country would probably arouse further hostility toward America. There is another concern that should figure into the president’s calculations: The missile strikes the White House is contemplating would advance Syria’s dissolution.
Assad would remain defiant in the face of an attack. It is not as if he is constrained now, but he would probably step up the violence both to exert control within his country and to demonstrate that the United States and its allies cannot intimidate him. At the same time, the regime’s Iranian patrons and Hezbollah supporters would increase their investment in the conflict, meaning more weapons and more fighters pouring into Syria — resulting in more atrocities. And on the other side, Syrian opposition groups would welcome a steady stream of foreign fighters who care more about killing Alawites and Shiites than the fate of the country. This environment would heighten Syria’s substantial sectarian, ethnic and political divisions, pulling the country apart.
The formidable U.S. armed forces could certainly damage Assad’s considerably less potent military. But in an astonishing irony that only the conflict in Syria could produce, American and allied cruise missiles would be degrading the capability of the regime’s military units to the benefit of the al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting Assad — the same militants whom U.S. drones are attacking regularly in places such as Yemen. Military strikes would also complicate Washington’s longer-term desire to bring stability to a country that borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.
Unlike Yugoslavia, which ripped itself apart in the 1990s, Syria has no obvious successor states, meaning there would be violence and instability in the heart of the Middle East for many years to come.