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A Muscular Policy in Syria Will Fail

This article is in response to “5 Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now,” by Michael Doran and Max Boot, which appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of the International Herald Tribune.

The greatest failure of the Obama Doctrine may lie not in its great success but its perceived easy exportability to any other conflict in the Middle East. The “lead from behind” approach and the targeted bombing campaign that worked so admirably in Libya was clearly on the minds of Doran and Boot as they put together their argument for intervention in Syria. But the Libya model has been stretched to its breaking point in their struggling attempt to fit it into the framework of the Syrian conflict.

Let’s look at how they justify a new, “muscular American policy” in Syria.

U.S. Intervention would diminish Iran’s Influence

The advocacy of intervention in terms of its likely effect on the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah trinity is dubious. Iran thrives on being the Middle Eastern and global pariah. This is the basis of its entire worldview and its means of generating such spirited support. On this basis alone, it conducts its foreign policy and defends its nuclear program.

If intervention is meant to weaken Iran’s image abroad, it will fail. Make no mistake: images of another American-sponsored bombing campaign on Muslims will not pass by unremarked, and “rally ‘round the flag” effects would bolster the standing of both Iran and its partner Hezbollah.

At best, one could say that disrupting the supply and communications network between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah would have a negative effect on their short-term regional strategy, but those networks could be easily repaired or replaced. The end result? An Iran with newfound motivation for digging in its heels at nuclear negotiations.

U.S. Intervention could keep the Conflict Confined

The authors fail here to describe what intervention would entail. We are left to assume, given their praise of Obama’s handling of the Libyan conflict, that a Syrian intervention would use the same, or similar, playbook. But despite how successful operations were in Libya, Western forces did not succeed in containing civilian violence. The repercussions of the Libyan conflict spread far and wide across North Africa, empowering Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as Ansar Al Dine in Mali—which resulted in an intensified civil war there and a coup d’état. Intervention, if successful, would result in weakened borders and a weakened central authority in Damascus.

Civil conflict, fueled by free weapons and ammunition would assuredly be rekindled in Lebanon (where cross-border shootings have already occurred), Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.

The U.S. Should Train and Equip Syria’s Opposition

The authors assume that if fighters are getting weapons from the U.S. instead of Al Qaeda, they could be more easily controlled and the latter’s support could be marginalized. There is no evidence whatsoever for this argument. Weapons are weapons – whatever their source. The American experience in Afghanistan since the 1980s should have taught us this lesson well: that once weapons are put in the field, they are no longer controllable. And in the hands of groups and individuals on whom we have no reliable intelligence, we should only assume the worst-case scenario in attempting it.

U.S. Intervention would improve relations in the Middle East

This is the strangest point of them all. Turkey and Qatar may have strained relations with certain countries in the Middle East and abroad, but the U.S. is not among them. Advocating a large-scale bombing campaign simply because Turkey and Qatar (both of whom certainly have interests in an Assad-free Syria) is not justified.

U.S. Intervention could end the Suffering

The crux of the authors’ argument rests of this final point: the protection of Syrian civilians from the disaster of “genocide and mass atrocities.” Again, we are left to assume that by intervention the authors mean a bombing campaign of the kind seen in Libya. Air power, which, when used alone, has a terrible record of keeping ethnic tensions in abeyance, would not, and could not, stop ethnic violence in Syria. Only invasion (or the threat of invasion) by ground forces in support of such an air campaign has the power to compel the Syrian government to cease from targeting ethnic groups. No one expects American, NATO, or UN troops on Syrian soil anytime soon. An American-led air campaign, especially if led from behind, would suffer from an extreme lack of credibility and practicality and would, therefore, be useless.

Syria is not Libya. Putting in the same ingredients won’t get us the same result. Likewise, a policy that has been applied only once is not a doctrine: it is a case study and there are far too many variables at play to expect the same result as in Libya. Intervention may become necessary in Syria and could very easily be justified, but Doran and Boot fail to make the case.