As the crisis in Syria continues to escalate, GJIA offers views of different possible responses to the crisis. Below, Peter Billerbeck offers his perspective. You can read other perspectives here and here.
We must seek a way to end the ongoing crisis in Syria which has now become an all-out civil war with tragic proportions. Most recent reports place the death toll at over 35,000 and the numbers of dead and imprisoned continue to increase by the day.
This growing crisis of astoundingly tragic proportions has led for many to call for some sort of U.S. military intervention. Proposals have ranged from sweeping bombing campaigns, to humanitarian safe zones, to limited no-fly zones. Many of these voices are among those who advocated for the 2003 Iraq invasion and extol the benefits of military confrontation with Iran. The interventionist camp includes not only the neo-conservative bloc but also those who justify intervention on the basis of humanitarian necessity and interpretations of just war doctrines. While dissimilar in rationale and ideological underpinnings, their arguments ultimately lead to perilous consequences for the U.S. and the region.
The risks of any of these variations of so-called “limited interventions” (no-fly zones, safe corridors) are many and do little to mitigate the human, monetary and geo-strategic costs of extensive commitment.
First, a no-fly zone necessarily entails significant strikes against formidable Syrian air defense capabilities, often placed in and around population centers and contested areas. Risky for uninvolved civilians, opposition fighters and pilots alike, a no-fly zone would necessitate strikes in contested areas and the assumption of a potentially ensnaring ground rescue operation in the event of a downed U.S. pilot.
Second, the prospect of creating “safe-zones” in Syria to provide fleeing refugees a safe haven and opposition leaders space to reconstitute sounds appealing but is fraught with moral hazard. Any such measure is effective only if defending forces are willing to engage and defeat a Syrian army proven to be irrationally brutal and indiscriminate. Proponents of this option neglect the memory of Srebrenica where forces protecting a safe zone failed catastrophically and, in less than 48 hours, defending forces were pushed aside and over 8,000 were killed. Additionally, maintaining so called “safe-corridors” would entail going beyond establishing air supremacy and extend to targeting the vast and as yet unexhausted Syrian military in a broad air-to-ground campaign that would bear little resemblance to that of Libya.
Recognizing the risks and weaknesses of limited intervention, others have pushed for a third option - enhanced use of covert action and clandestine operations to aid the militant opposition.
Disconcertingly, advocates of such an approach employ the same rhetoric used to justify a multi-million dollar, nearly decade long program to arm Afghan insurgents in the 1980s. Indeed, the recommended modus operandi bears much resemblance to that scenario. In both instances, Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia) are leading the charge and finding ideological bedfellows among the Salafist vanguard operating within Syria and steadily trickling in from neighboring countries. The CIA and other Western intelligence agencies are operating along the borders, attempting to influence the flow of funds and material. Not to be left out are members of congress finding emotive cause with a movement and society previously unbeknownst to domestic constituencies (in Texas or Arizona, for example). Most significantly, a wider cast of characters are flexing their muscles through local proxies.
The Afghan experience turned illusion to disillusion. In the chaos of a bloody factional civil war the premise that U.S. intelligence agencies could somehow “vet” groups or individuals to receive weaponry was shattered. Nonetheless, the myth persists that a long absent CIA, or ‘allied’ intelligence service can somehow divine “good from bad” actors. One need only recall multitudes of examples in Afghanistan (well documented by Steve Coll and Peter Bergen) once deemed “vetted” who would later become active enemies of the same forces that supplied them years ago, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Manan and associates of Osama bin Laden. It is no stretch of the imagination to picture Jabhat al-Nusra, the Farouk battalion or remnants of Iraqi Ansar al-Sunna or other groups operating in Syria radicalizing further and striking against an interim government or U.S. targets in the region. Even in Libya, the administration has “never determined where all of the weapons went.”
Critics may misconstrue this argument as an apologetic for the Assad regime. It is not. The tyranny of Assad must end. A transition, however, should not be achieved through a destructive air campaign or a CIA driven Afghan-style insurgency, but through a path forged within Syria by Syrians.
If any lesson is to be learned from the Arab awakening that has swept the region it is that after decades of subjugation as colonies or repressive autocracies, populations are craving their moment to assert autonomy – autonomy over political processes, economic decisions and social norms. Eras of Washington, Moscow or others tipping the scales in favor of one party or another are over. Though some in Syria continue to call for a heavier hand from the West or the Gulf, this call is heard most vocally from those who have the most to gain from such influence.
Vexing questions face Syria and ultimately it is the Syrian people themselves that have to define questions of governance in a future society not ruled by force or decree but by consent of the citizenry. What is necessary is a unified, non-extremist political front which builds on the incremental consensus achieved at the Doha Conference and willing to expand upon the framework set forward in the earlier Cairo Communique. The U.S. and EU’s most important role will be to make a political transition possible by continuing to encourage and aid an inclusive process to establishing a post-Assad government. This means continuing work on an architecture for an interim government, mechanisms to bring to justice those at the core of the Assad regime as well as measures to guard against a potential wave of reprisals. Also crucial is increasing humanitarian aid in upcoming months to neighboring states as well as multilateral organizations supporting the thousands of displaced Syrians, struggling to survive amidst harsh conditions. Part of this effort will be integrating a repatriation plan with an emerging political transition.
By yielding to calls for intervention from certain factions, we ignore the fundamental cry for self-determined political future sought in Syria and throughout the Arab awakening and revert back to an era of tipping the scales in favor of what we perceive to be our interests, again becoming enmeshed in another complex sectarian society.
Peter Billerbeck is completing his Master’s of Science in Foreign Service at Georgetown University and was awarded a National Council on U.S. – Arab Relations Summer Lebanon Fellowship. All views expressed are his own.