The Syrian Civil War has no end in sight. Had President Bashar al-Assad stepped down in August 2011–when the international community called for his resignation–countless lives would have been saved. Instead, he has chosen to bring the full might of the Syrian military to bear on his people. The conflict has been an all-or-nothing slugfest between President Assad’s Shi’ite, Alawite Regime and various Sunni rebel groups. Both sides continue to fight thanks to international backing, with Russia and the Iran/Iraq Shi’ite bloc supporting the regime and the U.S., E.U., and Sunni countries supporting a rebel overthrow. The result is two bloody years of conflict with eighty thousand people dead and more than two million displaced. Without stability, there can be no long-term planning for a new government. The international community must find common ground in order to broker a peace plan that gives all sides influence in a transitional government. Without such a plan, the mechanisms of the Syrian government will collapse and rebel groups will continue to fight for territory and power in a protracted civil war.
President Assad and the rebels will continue to fight because neither is willing to accept the other’s existence. The Syrian National Council (the fractious exiled political leadership of the rebellion, operating out of Turkey) has maintained that Assad must relinquish power before negotiations can begin, going so far as to call for the complete dismantling of the current regime. Between their president resigning and their recently elected prime minister‘s lack of recognition among rebel groups, the Syrian rebels hardly seem ready to assume control of a post-Assad Syrian state.
In this context, Assad and the state-controlling Alawi minority have nothing to gain through compromise. Even the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, has warned that without a negotiated political transition, supporters of the Assad government, “fearing death, would fight to the death.” Worse, the Syrian National Council has little command and control of the rebel groups fighting the regime, hurting any perceived leverage they have for negotiations. The impasse seems insurmountable. The potential proliferation of chemical and biological weapons or creation of a safe haven for terrorists increases day by day, while the humanitarian crisis continues.
Thus far, the U.S. response has included $385 million spent to help Syrian refugees, and $60 million in non-lethal aid (i.e., food and medical supplies). The C.I.A. is also reportedly training rebels in Jordan. Impatient politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle are now calling for America to provide lethal aid: rifles and anti-tank/anti-aircraft weapons (Note: Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already supplied the rebels with rifles and ammunition, effectively ensuring a stalemate with the regime). In addition, pundits and politicians have also called for a U.S. imposed no-fly zone, with a few even hoping to insert U.S. ground troops in order to secure chemical weapons.
Such impatient, hawkish proposals willfully ignore the unintended, often bloody consequences of military intervention. Unlike Libya, enforcing a military no-fly zone in Syria would require more extensive bombing of Assad’s Russian-made anti-aircraft capabilities. The Assad regime will likely respond to outside aggression by doing everything possible to shoot down our aircraft and galvanize both internal and international support as it floods the world’s media with images of U.S.-sponsored destruction. Likewise, the challenge of inserting ground troops would make Black Hawk Down look like a basic training exercise. These and other daunting challenges recently led Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to describe the conflict as “the most complex set of issues that anyone could ever conceive…”
If the U.S. intervenes on behalf of the rebels and Assad is overthrown, that will not guarantee an end to the Civil War. Fueling the violent overthrow of the regime may collapse already fragile government institutions and result in the rebels, both secular and Al Qaeda affiliated, continuing the civil war to define the new Syrian state in their image.
The threat of Al-Qaeda becoming active in Syria is another major concern for the United States. The most deadly rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, was formed through years of fighting as Al Qaeda in Iraq and claims 5,000 members. America has seen this before in the Philippines, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. A U.S. intervention is hardly a guarantee of success and may cost us dearly. With respect to appeals to arm the “good rebels,” history offers numerous other cautionary tales. Afghanistan in the 1980s saw the C.I.A. fund the mujahedin insurgency against Soviet Russia and its puppet government there, resulting in a decade of conflict that facilitated the rise of the Taliban and ongoing instability in Pakistan. Another caution-forcing example is in Post-Gaddafi Libya, where arms from that intervention sustain violent gangs inside the country and Islamist rebels in Mali and other areas of the Maghreb. While providing anti-aircraft launchers can protect the rebels from Assad’s air force, they can also be used to shoot down civilian airliners. Instead of the birth of democracy and freedom, the overthrow of Assad may be the rise of something ugly, radical, and violent.
If the international community hopes to save Syria and ensure a smooth post-conflict transition, then it needs to preserve the current regime’s institutions. Endless fighting or further contributing to the violence will lead to the collapse of the Syrian government and a power vacuum that will likely be filled by rebel warlords. With the country divided into fiefdoms, the fledgling Syrian National Council would have little to offer the warlords that control local areas by force. Both humanitarian liberals and idealistic neoconservatives who call for U.S. military intervention in the Syrian Civil War are misguided. The use of force will not counteract jihadists, secure chemical weapons, or stop the humanitarian crisis. As we recently witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. ground forces and unlimited fiscal borrowing may not contain regional animosities once a regime collapses. The international community must get the Shi’ite Alawis and secular Sunni rebels to negotiate. The Obama Administration should continue to push for multilateral negotiations between all interested parties and pursue a power-sharing agreement to end the violence. If it does not, its alternatives are prolonged civil war or another radical Islamic state in the heart of the Middle East.