Syria: The Cost of Inaction

By James Ferencsik.

Syrian Revolutionary Flag Face Paint

International intervention has always been a touchy subject in American political discourse. From George Washington’s farewell address urging an infant United States to “avoid foreign entanglements” to anti-Vietnam War protests, isolationism has run deep in the veins of American politics. In light of our recent ten year excursion into Iraq, the concept is as potent as ever, especially among the political left. Referencing Iraq, former Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania Patrick Murphy summed up the sentiment of many in citing Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Even after President Obama decided in favor of arming the rebels, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, in an effort led by Democrats, have blocked shipments over fears the weapons will end up in the hands of jihadists. A June NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that forty-two percent of respondents favor only humanitarian assistance for Syria and nearly a quarter favor no assistance whatsoever. While the U.S. should approach foreign intervention on any scale with a healthy sense of skepticism, many Americans, including elected officials, have allowed isolationist fears to prevent a proper assessment of the risks of inaction. The question of intervention is immensely complex, so we desperately need to have a nuanced debate that does not rely on partisan quips and slogans. We must not just evaluate the costs of action but also look at the costs of inaction.

The first risk of inaction to consider is the glaring specter of humanitarian disaster. Massacres perpetrated by both sides, attacks on innocent civilians, and retributive justice have created nothing short of a human tragedy. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights places the death toll just over 100,000; the more conservative estimate put forth by the United Nations puts the number at over 93,000. The U.N. also says that over 1.5 million Syrians have fled from the conflict to neighboring countries. Western nations, including the United States, have declared that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people – something President Obama once declared a “red line.”

While this is already a prickly situation, it can get much worse. Consider the three possible outcomes if the West does not intervene. If Assad’s forces win, they will surely slaughter all opposition. If the rebels win, the ruling Alawite minority – 12% of the Syria population – would likely face annihilation. If the conflict remains a stalemate, the death toll on both sides will continue to rise. Inaction would allow political genocide to percolate through Syria with the only question being who is at the wrong end of the gun.

Many who fear intervention may draw parallels with Somalia where we similarly attempted to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Siad Barre’s military junta was overthrown, and the interim President was not recognized by several opposition organizations. This led to a conflict not just between Barre loyalists and opponents but among the opponents themselves. The end result was a chaotic civil war and scenes of 12 year-olds running around with AK-47s as popularized in Black Hawk Down. Yes, Syria is similarly locked in a bloody civil war with varying combatants; however, the conflict is still dichotomous enough to be salvaged. The Western-backed Free Syria Army enjoys support from a broad but loose coalition of liberals and Islamists, including the powerful Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, an umbrella group for the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafists. As we learned with that historical episode, there is a window of time where a civil war is bipolar and two-dimensional before disintegrating into “a Somalia.” We waited too long in Somalia, and we are fast approaching that point of general anarchy in Syria.

To that point, we must consider the main destabilizing factor, the growing jihadist presence. We have seen consistent reports claiming there are several thousand foreign mujahedeen fighters within Syria. In addition, the Al-Nusra Front, a large and successful rebel group, is funded by Iraqi Al-Qaeda. There are reports that the group has tried to capture chemical weapons from the Assad regime – and gotten very, very close. The consequences if they succeed would be dire. While these groups are no longer allied with the Free Syrian Army, they seem to be metastasizing. A Western presence, including greater financial and military backing, could strengthen the Free Syrian Army, which would tamper jihadist influence and reshape the war into a more bipolar conflict: the Free Syrian Army versus the regime. The West could also serve as a moderating influence on the rebels if they defeat Assad, preventing sectarian genocide.

At the same time, Iran and Hezbollah have ramped up support for Assad, creating a proxy war where the U.S. sits aloof. As the recent Israeli airstrikes on Hezbollah weapons shipments indicate, the Lebanese militant group has worked to arm the Syrian government with considerable rapidity. This has major strategic implications for the United States in its dealings with Iran. A lack of action in Syria will embolden Iran to take a harder line with its nuclear program and directly jeopardize Israel’s security. Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak candidly stated while in office that the removal of Syria’s Assad, Iran’s only true geopolitical ally, would make Israel much safer and decrease the chances they launched a preemptive attack. We cannot forget that this type of strike would then wrap the United States into a direct conflict with Iran – a much worse alternative than intervention in Syria. Also, a little U.S. muscle here could force Iran to take nuclear negotiations more seriously.

When one sits down and begins to put these pieces together, the picture becomes rather clear. The costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action, and we have a growing imperative to act – based on a need to stop a humanitarian disaster and capture an important geopolitical opportunity. Time will furthermore not ameliorate the costs of intervention. The longer we wait the more costly, and probably more deadly, our intervention would be. While this would not be a politically salable or “easy war” to get engaged in, no one ever said doing the right thing was easy. It takes fortitude and a willingness to truly evaluate the situation – and act upon the conclusion. The problem of Syria will not go away. We cannot stick our heads in the sand. We must act.

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