Since August 21, 2013, when the reports alleged that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on its citizens, the Obama administration has explicitly expressed its willingness to use air strikes against certain targets in Syria. This willingness has been qualified in terms such as “limited, tailored surgical attacks” and not a “full-scale war” aimed at regime change. At issue is the uncertainty surrounding the scope of these looming air strikes: Will the scope of the war remain limited? Or will it expand into broader strategic goals involving further military actions against Syria? President Obama has sought congressional approval to do so, especially after the British parliament voted down the country’s participation in such military strikes.
The U.S. Congress, currently in recess, is also divided on such decisions, as some of its members are driven by isolationist impulses and others seem to prefer a “fight to finish,” as opposed to launching a few air strikes here or there intended to punish or contain the Assad regime in Syria. In the meantime, the American people seemingly have lost their appetite for military intervention, as the shadow of the Iraqi War still heavily hangs over their heads. The Obama administration is hard at work to show to the American people that any military action in Syria will not involve American soldiers’ presence on the ground and that will not lead to the full-scale wars of the kind that transpired in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet, the Obama administration’s case has yet to be successfully made, as there is a legitimate fear on the part of the public that the U.S. willingness to intervene not only will prolong and escalate Syria’s civil war but can also result in further civilian suffering. Approximately, fifty percent of Americans believe that the U.S. government should take no major military action against Syria.
There is no definitive response to these fears—whether justified or overstated. There can be no doubt that the potential collapse of the Assad regime will have profound implications for the regional as well as trans-regional balance of power. One legitimate concern, however, is that the possibility of a Sunni Islamist takeover after the Assad regime collapses is very likely. A military attack on Syria by NATO—a la military intervention in Libya—is risky. Evidence in Libya show that NATO operations there have created a Libya marred in racial and ethnic violence, a country awash with weapons and armed bands wandering about, tribal warfare, and a growing threat from the rise of radical Islamist groups and militia rivalries, all contributing to poor security conditions and an unruly political system.
For a variety of geopolitical reasons, the case for military intervention is unappealing. Many experts argue that a military intervention is bound to make things worse for Syrian civilians, while plunging Syria and its neighboring countries into a sectarian conflagration and the West and the region into a protracted civil war with no visible endgame in sight. This rationale is reinforced by the fact that the Syrian opposition (the Syrian National Council—SNC) is utterly fragmented as well as dominated by extremist elements. It is neither broad-based nor organized. Whereas in Egypt and Libya, all the major and regional powers supported, either explicitly or tacitly, intervention, in the case of Syria, there is no such consensus.
Any military intervention could further intensify the already ongoing proxy war (Russia and Iran supporting the Assad regime vs. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey supporting rebels) with considerable regional spillover impact, subsequently resulting in a protracted civil war with huge civilian casualties, reminiscent of a decades-long civil war in Lebanon (1975-1991) that resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Lebanese and a million displaced people. Will the United States and its allies bypass the UN Security Council to take military actions against the Assad regime? If yes, will this military engagement plunge the United States deep into yet another war in the Arab world? What kind of strategy will this military intervention offer for peace in a nation plagued by ethnic rivalries? The answers to these questions remain elusive, and the debate rages on.
Mahmood Monshipouri teaches international relations at San Francisco State University and Middle Eastern politics at the University of California, Berkeley.
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