Foreign Policy

How Not to Intervene in Syria

In 20-plus years of government service, I saw more than a few reruns of the same movie, particularly when we faced a really tough challenge. "Give me some options!", "Yes, Mr./Madam Secretary. We'll get a memo to you shortly."

Most of the time, the movie ended more or less the same way. The options that might work involved serious political and strategic risks, the others cost much less but wouldn't work quickly -- or more likely, at all. And so followed the much-caricatured but very real three-option memo: (1) do everything (2) do nothing (3) muddle through as best you can.

And so we muddle. The Syrian uprising is a blood-soaked tragedy playing out on a big stage, in full view of the international community. A brutal, repressive regime willfully and indiscriminately kills its own people in a desperate -- and so far successful -- effort to stay in power. It encourages and looses upon the land sectarian hatreds and resentments that play out in a fury of murder, kidnappings, and torture.

The fecklessness and powerlessness of the United States, and the international community writ large, only becomes more evident as the horrors mount. We have seen an Arab League observer mission that actually legitimizes the regime, a "Friends of Syria" group that highlights the division rather than the consensus in the international community, a U.N.

General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian regime that only showcases the absence of tougher Security Council action because the Russians and Chinese won't play along, repeated (and empty calls) for President Bashar al-Assad's removal, and sanctions that hurt but can't topple the regime. We have also seen the so-far unsubstantiated hope that in some way, all of these pressures will combine to create circumstances for the proverbial inside job, in which some Alawi military commander -- worried about his own skin and a war crimes prosecution, or perhaps even in an enlightened moment about the future of his country -- somehow challenges the regime with armor in the streets of Damascus and takes out the Assads.

But muddle through we must. The takeaway from any honest and unforgiving analysis of Syria produces a series of options that range from bad to worse. So we continue to play at the margins. We can't significantly ease the humanitarian crisis, unify the opposition, and stop the killing -- let alone get rid of the Assads.

Syria has always been different. The minority character of the regime, with its mix of profound insecurity and grandiosity as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, separates it from all the other Arabs.

(…)The rise of the Assads, and their view of Israel and America, was unique -- and the arc of their demise is likely to be as well. A year in, the uprisings in the Arab world have offered up three pathways for regime change, none of them appropriate to Syria.

First, the Egyptian model: Let's call it the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. Here, the military eases Hosni Mubarak out because it refuses to use massive repression and violence against the people and undermine its own power, perks, and influence in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Second, the Yemeni model: Outside forces with influence and access -- the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with American help -- ease a wily but weakened President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, with promises of immunity and perhaps some future role.

Third, the Libyan model: The international community, empowered by a Security Council resolution and the military muscle of NATO, wage limited war in support of a Libyan opposition that manages (eight months later) to defeat Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Syria really is different than these three. Unlike with the Egyptian military, the Alawis who dominate Syria's military and security services are borrowing a page from our own revolutionary founders: "We're either going to hang together, or hang separately." And the regime will continue to use whatever force is required to protect itself and its corporate interests.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on March 8th, 2012.

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