Calls to ramp up American intervention in Syria grow louder every day as the full weight of the Washington foreign policy establishment shifts in favor of escalation. On the table is everything from localized safe havens to a broader no-fly zone, from an air campaign to a substantial number of American boots on the ground.
Because the situation in Syria is so dire—hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced or stuck in a country bombed beyond recognition—these calls are increasingly cast in terms of humanitarian intervention. “The immediate thing is to do something to alleviate the horrors that are being visited on the population,” said Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under Bill Clinton, while arguing for intervention at The Washington Post.
If the United States doesn’t use our military might to help the people in Syria, we’re told, it is evidence of diminishing American authority on the world stage, a hit to our credibility and power. This may seem a persuasive argument at first glance—after all, no one wants to see Syria’s suffering continue or to lose face internationally—but on closer examination it simply doesn’t hold up.
Military escalation in Syria will prolong and intensify violence, offers no promise of success, poses major risks to American security, and is unlikely to have any meaningful effect where credibility is concerned.
First and foremost, we ought to learn the lessons of recent foreign policy failures. Here the 2011 intervention in Libya is particularly instructive: There, as in Syria, we saw a civil war pitting rebel militants of mixed quality (and allegiances) against a strongman bombing his own people. And there, as in Syria, humanitarian concerns were a primary, convenient pitch for intervention.
But intervention didn’t help. In fact, a Harvard policy brief by Alan Kuperman indicates that intervention likely made Libya’s civilian death toll worse: “NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold,” he calculates, “while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.” As unspeakable as the situation in Syria, and particularly Aleppo, has become, there is no surety heftier U.S. involvement will make it better. It is at least as possible our involvement could make the suffering longer and worse.
Success more broadly is no more certain. As Stephen M. Walt writes at “I’ve yet to see any of the advocates of intervention lay out a plausible blueprint for a post-civil war political order in Syria and a plausible path for getting there.” Intervening in Syria would see American troops wading into a remarkably complex conflict; corralling unreliable allies who oppose each other; and tangling with the Islamic State, the Bashar al-Assad regime, and very possibly Russia all at once.
And it would have to be big: An analysis from two Air Force officers for War on the Rocks determined the no-fly zone by itself would be “neither operationally feasible nor politically appetizing,” because the Assad regime is much better equipped than any other force the U.S. has attempted to ground with a no-fly zone. Even an ostensibly limited intervention of would quickly balloon.
In short, confident 30-day plans for how to get Syria under control are unrealistic at best. It is naïve if not dishonest to suggest the bigger mess in Syria will be more easily resolved than the smaller—and still ongoing, five years later—mess in Libya.
Honest predictions of the results of American escalation in Syria should not feature an easy campaign of saving children and toppling a dictator but rather years of grueling fighting with uncertain results intermingled with even more years of expensive and often ineffective nation-building morass.
Humanitarian intervention is often sold as a short-term, low-risk project. Syria is not that.
Meanwhile, the likelihood of conflict with Russia adds a fresh element of risk to American security that even the Libya debacle did not have. (There is no apparent way to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria, where Russian warplanes are flying on Assad’s behalf, without shooting those planes down—an act of war against Russia.) While it is true that the Russia threat has been inflated, risking war with Russia is nevertheless a dangerous game. Ongoing turmoil in Syria poses no direct threat to the United States, defended by the most powerful military, strongest alliances, and largest moats in the world. By contrast, though by no means a fair fight, chancing war with Russia is deeply imprudent.
The final argument for intervention—credibility—likewise fails the test of experience. The “United States has repeatedly chosen not to intervene in many large-scale humanitarian catastrophes, but without anyone concluding that the country was growing weaker, lacked the will to defend its own interests, or was becoming a ‘pitiful, helpless giant,’” Walt notes. “Moreover, these previous acts of restraint did not have any significant impact on U.S. security, prosperity, or global standing; if anything, the United States was better off for having stayed out of many of these situations.”
In Syria, the preponderance of evidence indicates we would be better off staying out once more.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing writer at The Week, and a columnist at Rare.
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