Syria: A Need for Action, With No Clear Goal

When children die indiscriminately at the hands of a dictator, our natural instinct is to protect and prevent.

— by Adam L. Beitman

This week, as the government is carefully building up public support for intervention in Syria, a consideration of recent history and the current situation in the Middle East presses itself upon us. More than anywhere else in the region, the dynamic in Syria illustrates the complexity of America’s conflicting foreign policy considerations, along with the impossibility of determining where our strategic interests (however conceived) reside.

When children die indiscriminately at the hands of a dictator, our natural instinct is to protect and prevent. Our impulse to stop these abuses, however we can, is the right one. Yet, beyond that impulse, current U.S. foreign policy toward Syria has no clear goal.

More after the jump.
In 2011, the United States intervened in Libya, using airstrikes to help rebels overthrow that country’s long time dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Plans in the works for Syria, which have been detailed extensively in U.S. newspapers’ front pages, outline a similar strategy.

The immediate difference appears to be that the aerial bombers will come only after seeing what can be done to cripple the government’s capacity, by using missiles launched from ships in the eastern Mediterranean. The hope is that enough Russian-made weapon systems and strategic infrastructure can be destroyed, so that the regime re-considers its use of chemical weapons (those weapons themselves, for obvious reasons, will not be targeted). Perhaps enough damage can be done to help the rebels overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

The problem for the U.S. is that there is no unqualified benefit, however defined, to overthrowing the Assad regime — just as there is no decisive benefit to maintaining it.

On one side sits the Syrian government, a military dictatorship that survives through a combination of force, and loyalty among the Alawite and associated elite, which controls the government and military apparatus. On the other side is a loose assemblage of rebel groups: Some motivated by Islamic fundamentalism; others by tribal, religious and ethnic loyalties; and still others by hatred of the regime, which has created plenty of enemies in the old fashioned way.


Both Assad and his father, who ruled before him, have maintained the situation along the Golan Heights undetermined, frosty, and yet conflict-free for decades.

To understand the consequences of Assad’s downfall, one must consider the structural differences between Egypt and Syria. For all the troubles in Egypt, the military there has consistently been the common — secular — denominator, largely independent of ethnic and tribal strife. The Egyptian military’s removal of Hosni Mubarak can be viewed as a secular organization eliminating one of its own, without the fear that the lack of a single individual would bring its power base crashing down.

The Syrian military does not have the same confidence, because removing Assad could prove tantamount to Alawite self-immolation. The only thing the Alawis fear more than a civil war, is the massacre that would come after should they wind up on the losing side. That, above all, explains why the extreme violence in the Syrian conflict has dragged on so much longer than in Egypt. The result of a downfall of the regime could be as bad, and as big a human rights disaster, as what is currently happening in the country.

With regard to both Israeli and U.S. foreign affairs, apart from human rights considerations, the choice between Assad and the rebels is a mixed bag, and the scales weigh fairly evenly: The Alawites function as a direct conduit for Iranian influence in neighboring Lebanon, where the Shiite group Hezbollah acts as one of the Jewish state’s fiercest and most ideologically committed enemies. Even so, both Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled before him, have maintained the situation along the Golan Heights, almost without exception, undetermined, frosty, and yet conflict-free for decades.

If the rebels topple the regime, Assad’s current abuses will end. But, at the same time, that will provide an opportunity for the regional Sunni powers (including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states) to fill a power vacuum in what will become a Sunni-dominated state with no intact political structure. The consequences of that are unknown, and might turn out very bad — potentially leading to a regional war, with the capacity to draw in any, and maybe every, state in the region.

For both Israel and the U.S., to say the least, the instability and violence created in this scenario is nothing to hope for, particularly in light of what is happening now to Israel’s south, in Egypt.

In sum, any immediate U.S. action in Syria would feel like an action for action’s sake. Rightly, we cannot bear the scale of violence, and want the killing to stop. Unfortunately, whether we intervene or not, the situation is unlikely to change for the better. If we intervene, under virtually any scenario, it would be a futile effort, that would be just as likely as not to make things worse than they already are.

No matter how one looks at the situation, there are no good choices, and even fewer good results to hope for. We ought not to expect that such an action would have any positive effect, apart from helping to ease our consciences.

Cartoons reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com.

Adam L. Beitman is a Democratic political and communications strategist based in Washington, D.C.