In the wake of Kofi Annan’s resignation as Special United Nation’s Envoy for Syria, hawks are circling and war-drums are beating. Here in the U.S., major media outlets, former government officials, and commentators are calling on the Obama Administration to "get off the fence" and forcefully intervene in Syria. Before the clamor drowns out right-reason, a few words of caution are in order.
There are serious questions that must be addressed by those who call for intervention. What kind of intervention do they envision? On whose behalf will they be intervening? And what will be the consequences of intervention?
This is not Libya and, despite Senator John McCain’s tendency to do so, facile comparisons should be avoided. The U.S. can bomb, if it wishes, and even establish a "no-fly zone,” but as Annan points out in his valedictory note published in the Financial Times on the day he stepped down, there is no military solution to the conflict that is underway. Increased violence will only beget more violence threatening a "conflagration…in the region that could affect the rest of the world.”
The Syrian military is more advanced than Libya’s and even with defections its core is made up of loyalists, not mercenaries. What is taking place now in Syria is a near full blown civil war, with clear sectarian overtones. If faced with no option but to fight for survival, the supporters of the regime will continue to fight, and as we have seen, the level of violence and numbers of casualties will only increase.
Unlike Libya, the Syrian regime has allies who see their interests being directly threatened in this conflict. The Russians, the Iranians, and the Lebanese Hizbollah all have a stake either in the survival of the regime or in the creation of a new status quo where their interests are protected. This does not mean surrendering to their regional designs. But it does require that they, and the costs of ignoring or confronting them, be factored into the discussion–”something those calling for intervention often fail to do.
And while what happened in Libya largely stayed in Libya, the spillover from Syria is already being felt throughout its unsettled neighborhood –”and will only be exacerbated as violence increases. Lebanon is feeling the repercussions of the sectarian battle and is fearing for its internal stability. Syria’s long-suffering Kurds have taken advantage of the weakening of Syrian military control over their region to secure their autonomy. Their movement will be forcefully contested by Turkey and Iran–”who fear Kurdish separatists in their countries. And Jordan, still reeling from the influx of Iraqi refugees is now bracing for still more refugees, Syrians fleeing south across their borders. All of these situations must be considered and addressed before any intervention is contemplated.
The Syrian opposition remains, at best, fragmented. There is no serious observer of the Syrian scene who believes that this opposition, such as it is, would be capable of governing and running the country should the regime and the institutions of state collapse. On whose shoulders would the burden of state-building fall? Who will disarm the now ubiquitous militia or root out the "foreign extremist fighters" who have entered the country? Who will organize the fractured military and heal the now deepened sectarian wounds? And who will restore order, fight crime, and stop feuds from escalating into sectarian blood-letting?
And should the regime collapse, who will be in a position of containing the inevitable fall-out? As was the case in next door Iraq, it can be expected that many of Syria’s urban elite will leave the country of their own volition because they have the means to relocate their families to more settled climes. This was the case with many Iraqi professionals. It should also be expected that many members of Syria’s religious minority communities will flee because of uncertainty or insecurity, out of fear of retribution. The impact of this exodus will be devastating for the Syrian economy and the future character of the country.
I remain a firm believer in the "Powell Doctrine"–”despite the fact that Powell, himself, forgot the very lessons he sought to convey in articulating its principles. Intervening militarily in a conflict where what you don’t know is more than what you do know, is a fool’s errand. And after ten years of folly in Afghanistan and eight in Iraq, one would hope lessons have been learned–”but apparently they have not.
Another argument made by those who support U.S. intervention, is that by standing on the sidelines the Obama Administration risks losing both the friendship of the people of Syria and a potential ally in a future Syrian government. But didn’t we hear this same argument in Afghanistan and Iraq? Have we so quickly forgotten the twists and turns of Ahmed Chalabi and Nuri al Maliki? Or the morphing of the Mujahedeen into the Taliban?
This is not to say that nothing can or should be done. The bloody regime in Damascus has lost legitimacy and is responsible for bringing this tragedy on itself and its country. Its pretense of "Arabism" and "resistance" has been exposed as a falsehood, masking nothing more than its vain attempt to maintain power. There was a time when the regime might have played a constructive role in creating change, but with its behavior, born of its own brutality and blindness, it has delivered its own death sentence.
The bottom line is that the regime must go. But as Annan correctly notes "only a serious negotiated political transition can hope to end the repressive rule of the past and avoid a future descent into a vengeful sectarian war.” That remains the only desirable way forward.
The reason Annan failed was because while all the major players paid lip-service to his efforts, they pursued policies that only served to fuel the conflict. With Annan gone, we are now collectively staring into the dark void. The choice is clear: either working collectively to unwind the conflict, or continuing the descent into hell and living with the consequences for years to come.
Instead of sabotaging a political solution with calls for "intervention,” the U.S. and its allies and Russia and its allies must agree to bring back Annan and commit themselves to a process that makes a negotiated transition possible. This approach might not produce an outcome that pleases everyone, but as we have learned from the past, the alternative will, in all likelihood, be worse.