Stopping Syria

Stopping Syria
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The diplomatic stalemate over the slaughter in Syria got even staler this week following a joint Russian-Chinese veto of a UN Security Council Resolution that would have called on President Bashir al-Assad to step down. The motion, which was proposed by Morocco, co-sponsored by the League of Arab States, and approved by the Council’s 13 other members, had represented the most significant diplomatic effort to date to address the Syrian government’s multi-month crackdown on its own people — which is soon set to pass a grim one year anniversary.

The strongest Mideast dictator to face an “Arab Spring” style uprising so far, Assad’s regime possesses powerful allies and a degree of strategic importance that was largely absent from earlier deposed tyrannies. In a must-read article in the Wall Street Journal, Professor Fouad Ajami goes so far as to dub the whole mess the “last battle of the Cold War,” in the sense that it pits an old-fashioned Soviet-era client state against the idealistic insecurities of the western powers. Russia has billions of dollars of outstanding arms contracts with Assad, a decrepit but useful naval base on the country’s Mediterranean coast, and a historic friendship that dates back decades.  America has a mushy sense that “something should be done.” As far as interests go, one party has significantly more at stake.

Though no one realistically expects a Russo-American war to break out over Syria, Putin’s intransigence does provide yet more discouragement to anyone hoping the west is gearing up for a rerun of last year’s Libya mission. Experts have warned the country is actually closer to being another Iraq; a nation of furious sectarian division barely held together by a single strongman, with Assad’s weird minority sect of Alawi Islam playing the role of Saddam’s Sunnism. To intervene military would thus almost certainly be an invitation for long-term pain for any occupying power, or, at the very least, merely swap the horrors of dictatorship for the horrors of a religio-ethnic civil war.

Small wonder than that President Obama, despite his increasingly swaggery approach to foreign affairs, has remained mostly cautious in his rhetoric so far, insisting, as usual, that while “all options are on the table,” he’s not seriously considering most of them. Like the Russians, he lamely hopes in public that a “political solution” can be found, even as that most political of institutions, the UN, has just finished proving itself worthless.

In this grim post-American era of ours, the best hope for the Syrians probably remains a form of limited intervention by their Muslim neighbors, who have slowly but surely emerged as some of Assad’s toughest critics. Closely linked with the equally unpopular and ambitious regime in Iran, neither an emboldened nor tottering Syria serves the interests of anyone in the neighborhood, and some observers have suggested an Arab-led intervention, led largely by Turkey to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south, is possible if stability descends much further. It’s already been widely reported that Turkey is covertly running guns to the Syrian rebels (who want more of this sort of thing, frankly) and the Turkish foreign minister is set to visit Washington this week to further strategize.

Should they chose to go all-in, strategic possibilities could include Arab League enforced no-fly zones  or “safety zones” in various parts of Syria, or merely in-and-our maneuvers to liberate civilian refugees (ironically, similar to the services Syria itself once offered during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel). Relatively band-aid solutions by the imperial “fix-everything-forever” standards of the west, but certainly better than nothing.

My own instinct is to hope for a local solution. In the aftermath of Somalia, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, etc, we’ve gotten so comfortable assuming that all international interventions — humanitarian or otherwise — have to be planned and led from western capitals the notion that Third World coalitions possess the capacity to address some of their own problems seems positively quaint. Yet if the goal is caution, care, precision, and moderation, it may be a proposal worth dusting off.

The question is whether or not both sides are prepared for the out-of-character roles that would be required in the case of a purely local action: the Arab states as military and strategic leaders taking responsibility for human rights violations in their own backyard, and the west as passive observers unable to call the shots.

Crazy, but it just might work.


  1. B5C

    Also another reason why the US may wants to do it diplomatically. There is no economic reason for the USA to come in. Syria doesn't have that much oil compared to Libya. Assad wasn't an real enemy of the United States and not a threat to Israel.

  2. @Kisai

    I have the same general opinion of Syria as I did of Iraq before the US invaded Iraq. Yes some dictator-with-blinders-on is running the show, but the US went in with bad intelligence (or outright fabricated) on Iraq, and has payed dearly for it. Do you really want the US running the show again?

    You can watch a recent interview with the Russian Ambassador on Syria here: , Russia views action on Syria as "Regime change opportunity", when Russia is advocating for political reform.

  3. Jon Bennett

    Now that I'm old and cynical, I think we should just leave this alone. If we do eventually invade and toss out Assad, we should let the country rebuild itself. We should quit deluding ourselves that anyone is going to thank us for removing their murdering dictators, and we certainly shouldn't put American lives on the line for it unless they become an outward-looking threat.

  4. David Dunn

    So it is okay to watch someone get murdered, as long as it is certain the murderer won't look at you next.

    Jon, I understand your basic sentiment, but I don't think this issue can even be so dismissively put off because it might cause some level of danger to troops. Certainly the death of troops is sad and hopefully avoidable, but in the end it is their job and not one we should shy away from. We cannot allow bullies to bully and sitting and just watching is as bad as bullying itself.

  5. Benjamin Allen Whetham

    If you feel so strongly about it, YOU go spend YOUR money and YOUR blood doing something about it. Make sure to send photos.

    Given our track record in Iraq, where we replaced the secular Saddam Hussein — who was so despised by Islamists that Osama bin Laden himself offered to fight against him in the 1991 Persian Gulf War — and replace him with a Shiite regime friendly with Iran, while also bringing about a new Iraqi constitution that makes Islam the state religion and forbids any law that contradicts its teachings, how can anyone think that we'd do much better in Syria?

    The US cannot and will not police the world in the future. People need to solve their own problems. As harsh as that is, that is the reality of the world we live in. If you want to support those movements, do it with your own money and effort and quit trying to drag us along for the ride.

  6. @ThePsudo

    If America stays out of it (which seems both likely and reasonable), this might become the standard point of comparison with Iraq. If Syria goes well, Iraq will look worse by contrast. If Syria goes badly, maybe Iraq went better than we thought.

  7. Jon Bennett

    I think the lesson of Iraq is that you cannot wage a war when 50%+ of the population and an entire political party is against is on principle

  8. David Liao

    There was broad support both in America and even in Iraq; the lesson was that things go very wrong if you don't plan well after the initial war (which took 3 weeks) is over.

  9. Benjamin Allen Whetham

    The lesson of Iraq is that you can't cram 800 years of Western History into 6 months and expect it to take root. Or course Iraq was going to go with an Islamist government over western representative government. The latter has no history in the region while the latter has thousands of years of history in the region. People go with what they know.

  10. Dan

    I appreciate the addition of Kate's pony.

  11. drs

    I assume JJ knows this, but the language was potentially misleading; Turkey is Muslim, but not an Arab country. (Ditto for Iran and countries further east.)

    As far as non-Western-led interventions go, I think the African Union has been up to stuff for a while. But who here pays attention to Africa, especially good news?

  12. Person #929384-2

    Obama’s going to stay out. The last thing we need is to mingle with the affairs of a country we have no ties or alliance with, and he knows it would be political suicide to go in after Iraq and Libya.

  13. Dude

    I'd love to see the locals intervene – it'd probably work better, and I always like the sight of marginalized folk acting like they've actually got some power.

    (Also, I know this is a shitty reason to wish for a war, but I can't help thinking of how many arguments it'd help me make. "So, Turkey and Jordan are anti-Muslim bigots just looking to blow up brown people too?", and all that.)

  14. Virgil

    I agree with the entry for the most part….but as a living breathing American I am bound to ask….

    Post-American era?

    It seems America is still at a place similar to Britain in the 1860's. Just because we may be more shy of boots on the grounds doesn't mean we don't still protect the sea lanes and the air lanes of trade.

  15. alejandro

    I have to agree if anything any intervention in Syria will be supported in a manner similar to the method the United States has supplied Israel in it's regional wars and interventions in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

    At most I expect american tankers to refuel Turkish F-16's while an armada of Drones circle the skis.

  16. guest

    I agree that the best possible outcome would be an Arab League intervention.
    It stops the bloodshed – which must be the no. 1 priority – and avoids all that crazy 'infidels out' business.
    The West can provide some logistical support if necessary.

  17. bificommander

    I'm not convinced a local intervention would be all that effective in preventing that bloody civil war. I think that a significant reason that Assad is currently so openly loathed by his neighbouring countries is that his particular religious minority government oppressing the population isn't the same sect/ethnicity as their own. Contrast the situation a year ago in Bahrein, where other Sunni governments, mostly Saudi Arabia, send in troops to help the government squash the protests. In that case, the minority ruling sect was Sunni, and the protesters were Shiite. The religious conflict here was of course mixed with geopolitical conflict, i.e. fears that a new Shiite regime would ally itself with Iran. But it's generally hard to disentangle those conflicts everywhere. Thus, I fear that any local intervention may end up acting, or at least being percieved by others, as an extention of the Sunni's in Syria. Rather than a sollution to the pseudo-civil war that's going on now, they'd just be turned into another party in it, with the best case scenario that at least one side will be able to win the conflict and end it.

    Not that I think a western-led military campaign will yield much better results mind you.

  18. John Paladin

    Ben Whetham

    If you saw a bully in the streets picking on a child would you feel the same way?

    As horrible as it is to send people to fight and possibly die – how do you simply stand back, knowing that this is happening, turn a blind eye, and say ‘not my problem’?

    We are all people and all equally deserving of the basic life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – or do those principles only apply to people you know?

  19. Luke

    I'd say it's more a case of "Before you remove the speck of dust from your neighbor's eye, remove the plank from your own"; America is facing a multitude of problems domestically, and we should focus on addressing them before we try any more overseas adventures, especially when Syria has "potential Iraq-style quagmire" written all over it.

  20. Benjamin Allen Whetham

    Non Sequitur, we are not talking about children. We are talking about adults. When you see two adults arguing in the street, do you forcefully intervene? If you have ever made that mistake you find that you are now the target of both parties and the original dispute is never resolved.

    You are basically saying that might makes right. Whoever has the biggest gun gets to make the rules and to heck with what everyone else thinks? That's the same sort of thinking Stalin used. What would you be saying if the roles were reversed?

    It's not that I don't care. It's that I realize that people have to work out their own problems. History has shown clearly that intervening if often worse than just letting them figure it out themselves and does not bring about lasting peace. What we SHOULD do is lead by example. The current example we are setting for the world is that the biggest thug gets to boss everyone else around and we see the world emulating our example. What we SHOULD do is show the example of peaceful interaction with our fellow man and how that benefits everyone.

    People are not refrigerator magnets that you just move around to produce what you want. Life is much more complicated that and people need to accept that true happiness is not in this life. Our options in situations like this is from a list of least bad options.

  21. tcdh

    The US is waiting for Israel to take out Iran.

    But, Russia. Russia is a country still obsessed with its former glory. It has managed to remain relevant by bullying smaller former Soviet nations around it. And if the 21st century belongs to China, we are screwed. These people have no respect for human rights.

    But, the US is bound. Do they really want to start another war in the middle east? I do agree that the other Arab states have to step in to help Syria, but so far, they've been ineffective.

  22. Repliki zegarków

    We Canadians are nothing if not opportunists. How else to explain a country that spends 90% of it’s time united in vehement opposition to everything and everyone that emerges from the city of Ottawa now suddenly turn around