Seriously Thinking About Syria

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Woody Paschall
USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Woody Paschall

Guest post by Ora Szekely

What to do about Syria?

A little over eight years ago, in June of 2005, sitting in the park up on Jabal Qasioun overlooking Damascus, I remember very specifically hoping I would never see images on TV of Damascus like the footage we were seeing every day back then of Baghdad, of plumes of smoke and neighborhoods in ruins. Tragically, we now see those images every day, and worse. Whether we believe that American strikes against Syrian targets are a positive step in support of a justifiable uprising, a necessary evil to maintain international taboos against chemical weapons, or an empty gesture that will only make things much worse, the reality is that for Syria, the last three years have already become the kind of hell that has Iraqi refugees running for the relative safety of home. So perhaps rather than “(when) should the international community intervene” we ought to be asking “how do we stop the war in Syria?”

Of course, a closely related question is “how do we get rid of Asad and his cronies?” One argument in favor of intervention is that it might help loosen Asad’s grip on power, an understandable motivation. I’ve noticed an increasing tendency this year by analysts and commentators to throw up their hands and dismiss all sides as being equally bad. In some civil wars, that’s true. In Syria, it isn’t. The rebels may not (all) be good guys – some of them are undeniably dangerous, mostly to Syrians. And yes, they are fragmented and poorly organized. But let’s be clear – the Asad regime are definitely The Bad Guys. And now, it looks increasingly like they’ve used chemical weapons on civilians. Syria deserves better, and has for a long time.

This leads to the second argument being made in favor of intervention – that the use of chemical weapons is a line that no one should be allowed to cross. Fair enough. It does get crossed, with depressing regularity, but that’s nothing we should defend. But for Syrians who’ve survived the siege of Homs or Hama, or the assault on Aleppo, I would imagine that it feels like the “atrocities” line has been already pretty well crossed (in some cases by the rebels as well.) So again, we come back to the question: what can be done to end the war in Syria?

It’s not at all clear that airstrikes in Syria will contribute toward this goal. The rebels managed to kill off three high ranking officials with one well-placed bomb last summer and that didn’t seem to do more than temporarily stun the regime. For what it’s worth, here is what I think such a strike would accomplish:

  1. It may well boost morale for (some segments) of the opposition. The message that someone is holding the regime accountable for its actions and offering concrete support, even with a purely symbolic strike (which is about all it appears is on the table), would likely be welcomed by some segments of the FSA.
  2. On the other hand, in the eyes of others, it might legitimize the Asad regime. And not just among people who argue that the Asad regime should be preserved because it is part of an “axis of resistance” against the US and Israel. By “attacking Syria” (even if the US sees itself as “attacking Asad”) the Obama administration puts the regime in the position of defending Arab lands against the United States. It also runs the risk of making the rebels, especially the moderates, look like American stooges, and American support has long been the kiss of death in the Middle East.
  3. It stands to worsen an increasingly unstable situation in Lebanon, by further polarizing the various parties. Hizbullah is already playing defense at home, and if an American strike leads to massive protests, that could be followed by (more) clashes in Tripoli and the South, attacks on Syrian refugees, and further destabilization. On a related note, there’s always the risk (although I think it’s a very slim one, since they’re generally pretty strategic) that Hizbullah may retaliate against the US by attacking Israel, which would in turn retaliate in ways that could be catastrophic for Lebanon.
  4. Will it disrupt weapons shipments from Russia and China, as this piece in Foreign Affairs argues? Maybe. But in order to do so fully, strikes on airports would need to be followed up by a naval blockade (especially of Latakia) and I can’t see anyone volunteering their navy for that particular mission, although Turkey would be the logical choice.

In the end, this probably won’t be a game changer in either direction (unless the Obama administration loses its damn mind decides to commit massive numbers of troops, in which case things will very quickly become exponentially worse for everyone). While the urge to do something in response to the atrocities being committed in Syria is understandable, and commendable, it should be the right thing, in the service of ending the war and minimizing the suffering of Syrians. With that in mind, here are a few things I think the US and its allies could do that might be helpful:

  1. While cratering a few military runways wouldn’t stop the influx of weapons from Russia to the regime entirely, it might slow it down a bit, which is a worthwhile goal in its own right.
  2. There’s a lot more that the US and its allies could do to strengthen and support the more rational parts of the rebel forces. While the Jabhat al Nusra is getting a lot of attention, there are also plenty of former Syrian military guys in the FSA who defected simply because they wouldn’t shoot at civilians, in some cases at great personal risk. There are also plenty of ad-hoc local village militias just trying to keep their towns safe. Particularly in the north, those people could be helped out with medical supplies, training, and other resources. This is at the very least a form of harm reduction, and may improve chances for an effective transition later by strengthening local governance.
  3. On a related note, American hands aren’t completely tied when it comes to the nuttier Salafist elements in the rebel forces either. They’re mostly getting their funding and arms from the Saudis and Qataris, on whom the US could, and should, apply significant pressure to cut it out.
  4. The most important thing the US can do right now is to provide support for the 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and increasingly in Iraq. This may seem like a lower priority at the moment, but ask the government of Lebanon what happens when you have a large, angry, refugee population right next to a conflict zone, for long periods of time. (Or, the Congolese. Or the Pakistanis. Or…well, it’s a long list.) As it stands now, the Syrian refugee crisis risks becoming a serious security crisis for host countries – it already is for Lebanon – and potentially for the region as a whole. Providing things like decent housing, medical care, education, and monitoring their treatment by host countries can preempt radicalization, limit the ability of seriously scary organizations to recruit, lessen the burden on host countries, and also alleviate an enormous amount of suffering.

And so with that in mind, I’m going to blatantly exploit the platform Steve has so kindly given me by including this link: Whether we think airstrikes are a good use of resources or not, $25 to UNHCR absolutely is. And if all the people (like me) holding forth this week about what the US ought to be doing in Syria kicked in a few dollars, that would be a pretty good start.

Ora Szekely is an Assistant Professor at Clark University.

A version of this piece was first published at contributor Steve Saideman’s blog.

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