The perils of non-intervention in Syria
July 16th, 2013
10:29 AM ET

The perils of non-intervention in Syria

By Will Marshall, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.

After two years of escalating violence, the Syrian rebellion looks more and more like a Middle East version of the Spanish Civil War. It has turned into a vicious proxy war that is cleaving the region along sectarian lines and inspiring atrocities on all sides – ironically, the very dangers opponents of U.S. intervention have warned against.

President Barack Obama’s original decision to stand aloof from the Syrian uprising reflected his broader strategy of extricating America from Middle East conflicts. It also mirrored the anti-intervention consensus that has come to dominate U.S. foreign policy debates in the wake of our long and costly engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But as the death toll rises — and as Iran and Hezbollah go all in for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, provoking a counter-mobilization of Sunni jihadists from across the region — Washington’s hands-off stance has become strategically and morally untenable.

Seizing on the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons, Obama reversed himself last month and proposed to arm insurgents not tied to Islamist extremist groups. This has incensed the anti-interventionists, an improbably broad alliance that runs the gamut from Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann on the far right to the usual suspects on the anti-war left. In between are many erstwhile liberal internationalists chastened by the supposed “lessons” of Iraq and Afghanistan. What unites them is an unfounded sense of futility about America’s ability to shape events in the Middle East.

More from GPS: Time running out to help rebels

Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis is generating a powerful lesson of its own: Non-intervention can be dangerous, too. For a superpower like the United States, there are no free rides: The decision not to act also entails calculable costs and risks. Let’s tote them up:

Mounting death toll. What began as peaceful, Arab Spring style demonstrations against al-Assad’s inherited dictatorship has morphed into a grinding slaughter. More than 100,000 people thus far have perished in the fighting, with no end in sight. Western leaders, who grandly declared that they would not allow Moammar Gadhafi to butcher protesting Libyan civilians, have in effect given al-Assad a free pass. The result is a humanitarian disaster that could surpass Iraq in magnitude.

Growing refugee crisis. Well over a million Syrians have fled the country and are now crowding makeshift camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The exodus is overwhelming the resources of those countries, especially those that absorbed previous waves of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Another million or so Syrians are thought to have been displaced internally by the fighting.

Region is roiled by sectarian conflict. Iran is pulling out all the stops to save its loyal satrap in Damascus. In addition to supplying weapons (flying over an acquiescent Iraq), units of Iran’s Republican Revolutionary Guard and its notorious Quds Force are operating in Syria. Hezbollah, the third pillar of the self-styled “axis of resistance” (against Israel and America) has also entered the fray, and it is credited with helping al-Assad’s forces retake Qusair last month. Shiite volunteers are reportedly streaming into Syria from Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Magnet for jihadis. Al-Assad’s unrelenting brutality, abetted by Shia Iran and Hezbollah, has inflamed Sunni Arabs. According to a report in Foreign Affairs by Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Zelin, an estimated 5,000 Sunnis from 60 countries are fighting in Syria. This number includes hardcore Salafist groups who have poured into the vacuum left by the West’s reluctance to arm indigenous Syrian insurgents. “Syria is the new epicenter for the global jihad, with would-be ‘martyrs’ arriving from across the Islamic world to fight Assad,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official. “They are getting experience in the terror arts they will bring home.”  They’re also causing growing friction within Syria as they attempt to impose their harsh brand of Islamist “justice” on areas under their control.

Newly assertive Russia. Although its influence in the Middle East evaporated after the Soviet Union unraveled, Russia is angling to reassert its Cold War role as the great power patron of the region’s radical, anti-Israel and anti-American regimes. In tandem with China, President Vladimir Putin has blocked all attempts to muster a unified United Nations response to al-Assad’s depredations. Moscow is supplying al-Assad with sophisticated air defense and other weapons, blandly insisting it’s just fulfilling contracts with Syria’s legitimate government.

Ineffectual United States. Key U.S. allies in the region – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt – are baffled and alarmed by Washington’s passivity toward Syria. While our enemies are fully committed to throttling the popular revolt, there’s a growing impression that the United States just wants to disengage and let the Middle East stew in its own toxic juices while we “pivot” to Asia. The administration’s ambivalence toward the turmoil in Egypt has only deepened this sense of U.S. impotence and strategic irrelevance.

More from GPS: Obama's risky Syria move

Al-Assad seems to have the momentum in the fighting, and if he and his allies prevail, it would be a tragedy first and foremost for Syria’s brutalized people. It would be a huge win for Iran, which would resume its quest for regional dominance with fresh confidence and be even less likely to heed international demands to dismantle its nuclear program. It would vindicate Hezbollah’s controversial decision to send its best fighters to fight and die in Syria (instead of Israel) and likely bend Iraq’s Shiite government further toward Tehran. And Russia would bask in its restored status as a key arbiter of Middle East politics.

Maybe none of this will come to pass. But it would be folly for Washington to ignore the growing risk of a strategic rout in Syria that emboldens our adversaries, galvanizes Islamist extremists, destabilizes friendly governments, deals a potentially fatal blow to the Arab Spring and puts Israel in an even more precarious position. If such a debacle befalls us, the anti-interventionists will have some explaining to do.

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Topics: Syria • United States

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soundoff (80 Responses)
  1. Outspoken

    Who is this guy ?

    July 17, 2013 at 5:44 am | Reply
  2. Kyon

    Why does America have to everything? No one appreciates it when we intervene and when we don't they are all crying for us. We are the ones they deserve, but not the one the world needs. it needs to live without us, otherwise rename the planet the united states of earth. or

    July 17, 2013 at 5:56 am | Reply
    • mojacar

      is the cia not an American agency ? they started this whole mess by arming and funding some malcontents who hoped to seize power as an American puppet government .we have ben training and arming the sleeze for 2years now out one of our bases in turkey and through surrogates .why do peole continue to believe the americans are not involved?

      July 17, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
      • toumanbeg

        Evidence please!

        July 18, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Andrey

      You should not believe everything you read on CNN. Yes, it does not make sense: because it is mostly a lie!

      July 18, 2013 at 12:02 am | Reply
  3. WimR

    The uprising was not initially peaceful. On the contrary – it always had a violent component:

    The uprising was immediately adopted by the Obama (who wants regime change), Saudi Arabia (that wants revenge for Hariri's death) and Turkey (that has a sectarian Sunni agenda). The US gave explicit permission to and even encouraged those other countries to arm the uprising. As for Jordan: it saw its usual financial support from the Gulf States cut until it gave in and allowed more arming of rebels from its territory.

    The main blocker of a solution has been Obama. He has always supported those segments of the opposition who oppose any negotiations unless Assad resigns first. Of course demanding surrender as a precondition for negotiations is ridiculous and shows malicious intentions. It was he who recognized a foreign opposition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood – despite the fact that Brotherhood has little support inside Syria and is hated by the Alawites for sectarian killings in their previous (1976-1982) uprising.

    Assad's regime has been ruthless in suppressing the uprising. But the opposition has been just as ruthless. And Assad's behavior is not that outrageous when one compares it with the behavior of other governments when they are suddenly confronted with an uprising while having an army without experience in counterinsurgency.

    The sectarian element comes mainly from the opposition. They have tried to frame the uprising as an uprising of Sunni against Alawite oppression. The main source is Saudi Arabia that later also adopted the sectarian calls for war from Qaradawi.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:16 am | Reply
  4. Marvin

    None of you nimrods really know what the cost of non=intervention would be. We fight in Afghanistan because of 911, least we forget. Iraq was an extension to Afghanistan. Syria will be no different. The cost of lives, even one, expecially American, is appaling, in the broader picture but relativly light for America, compared to past major conflicts. Remember, nearly 2500 lost at Pearl Harbor, about the same on the beaches of Normandy or the sands of Okinawa in one day of fighting. Totaling about 600,000 troops over 3 1/2 years of fighting, not counting the wounded. No one hates war more then a soldier, I speak from experience. But the cost of doing nothing now would lead to gallons of blood spilled later.

    Most of you want us to become isolationists and take care of home first. Well, that sounds really tempting until they're planting bombs on our streets, malls or major sporting events, killing hundreds maybe thousands in one blow, like the twin towers and the pentagon of 9/11. Radical Islam will have training camps, an industrial and economic base in which to establish coordinated attacks agains us and/or our allies, killing thousands more.

    We may have problems within our own government, the lack of term limits is but one among many faults. But without America being the mediater of the world not "policeman", who would take our place (and there would be one)? Russia? China? England? France? Dictating to us, what we can or cannot do or say or own or anything? All you left-wing liberals would ask, "What happened?" America must be strong and influentual in foreign affairs, at least for self preservation, security and keep our way of life.

    July 17, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
    • BC Dude

      You're not doing a much better job than the nimrods you mentioned. You're suggesting we should intervene because of the threat of radical Islam, but radical Islam is the biggest winner if Assad falls. As bad as Assad is him and his father before him have kept radical Islam down in there country with an iron fist. A Syria without Assad would make the world more dangerous and embolden jihadists, similarly to how they were emboldened after they defeated the Russians in Afghanistan, which paved the way for 9/11. I believe in freedom for everyone, but currently in the middle east I see secular dictators as the better choice than Islamist governments, ruling on secetarian and religous lines, elected or not.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Reply
      • istopper2

        Well said..
        I would prefer the devil we know.. Look at Egypt, that is exactly what will happen in Syria.

        The West wants rebels to win over Assaad only because it helps them control Iran and im sure they figure they can control these terrorist easier than a nuclear Iran.

        July 18, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
      • Kiera

        Well said BC Dude.....there are much more dangerous fundamentalists on the anti-Assad side. I cant believe how this article ignores this fact.

        July 22, 2013 at 9:15 am |
  5. Marvin

    War is, "nothing but the continuation of state policy with other means." – Karl von Clausewitz – On War – 1827

    July 17, 2013 at 8:15 am | Reply
  6. goodthinker

    I could support US humanitarian aid to refugees. But, intervening in civil wars is not the US's responsibility. Perhaps the UN could be more effective than it has been.

    July 17, 2013 at 9:11 am | Reply
  7. iran = russia= china= syria= iraq= hizboallah= evil= terrorists

    quarter of million civilians was killed by the shiia , syrian thugs and iran back up terrorists hizboallah along with iran and iraqi shiia money and support, russian weapons thos evil are the worse in this world , SHAME ON YOU USA , NATO, UN , UK AND THE FREE WORLD SHAME ON YOU , THATS WHAT U DID WHEN HITLER RISE , WHY THIS SILENT...IF THOSE WERE CHRISTEANS THE WORLD WILL BE UPSIDE DOWN.......

    July 17, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Posted like a true ignorant, hateful Tea Partier! Get serious, will you?

      July 17, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Reply
      • Rabiya

        Sir I think I am falling in love with you just reading your comments tell me you are the man i would wana spend my life with.

        July 17, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Andrey

      Brainwashed=brainless=hatemonger= dumb=fat=big-mouthed=bigot

      July 18, 2013 at 12:06 am | Reply
    • istopper2

      Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah

      If it wasn't for Asaad, all Christians would be dead. The rebels are the terrorists they are no longer innocent civilians. Only difference now from last year is which devil do you prefer? the one you know? What is happening in Egypt is what will happen in Syria if Asaad falls or Russia will just take over the country. Russia does not want the MB getting control of that country.

      July 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  8. JAL

    Grace in Egypt will resolve conflict in Syria.

    July 17, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  9. David Knowles

    A pro interventionist article that doesn't even consider the possibility that may be letting the Middle East deal with it own crisis may lead to longer term stability and even greater democracy within the region.I rather have Iran be the dominate player in the region that the Salafist Saudi Arabia and Qataries both of whom hosts people that provide finance to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

    Often people point out and use what happen in Rwanda to promote intervention, what they often refuse to discussed is that Rwanda civil war allows the Rwandans to solve their issues, and it laid the foundations that have lead over the last 20 years massive improvement in virtually every area, life expectancy, economy,healthcare, education even less corruption in the country. Where aid agencies says the aid doesn't trickle down to the people, it free flows down to the people.

    Where Bosnia often held up as a shining example of where interventionist does work, still requires thousands of UN peace keepers to maintain the peace and keep the side separated. Libya, where the author boast about stopping Gaddafi, which did happen, instead the Islamists rebels slaughtered thousands of Gaddafi supporters, where large sways of the current government is control by Islamists, where there is massive in fighting between the different rebel fractions, no security, costs of health care, free under Gaddafi have skyrocketed, projects to bring water to the cities have ceased in construction. Libyans are no longer being sent abroad to train as doctors and nurses anymore.

    An BP and Shell now spends massive amount of money of hiring security staff because they know longer trust the current government in Libya, if you can even call it a government, to provide security for it personnel.

    Afghanistan, where intervention could be a shining example of how intervention can work, is being abandon before they are ready to stand of their own two feet.

    In fact the only place where intervention has work is Sierra Leon and even they still regularly require the local British ambassador to intervene to broker deals between the fractions in the country. Somalia may be another example but it still to soon to tell. An the less said about our intervention in Congo the better.

    July 18, 2013 at 5:18 am | Reply
  10. Caleb Powell

    This is a classic damned if you do damned if you don't situation. What's the difference? If you don't, at least you aren't spending billions of dollars making the wrong decision.

    July 18, 2013 at 6:54 am | Reply
  11. sparks2000

    aaah--once again our heads get filled with war propaganda,as certain aspects of society try to push us into another war-no thanks--we've been down this road so many times,it is getting really old--how many vets do we need to keep sending in for five,ten or more tours and then bringing them back into a society that doesn't understand them

    July 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  12. Tony

    There is a war in Mexico, over 100,000 killed in the last two years, where is the US? This people are being doing the war games since Prophet Muhammad, America was not even around! I said let them do what they do best and if they mess with us let's wipe them out of the face of the earth.

    July 18, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  13. Uniquitous

    The US can take a pass on this one. Let some of the other countries around them that will actually be affected by the refugees do some of the heavy lifting on this one. This is a NO WIN SITUATION. They will hate us if we do not help, they will hate us if we do. Better they hate us and our citizens do not die in their country. Should their conflict spread to our allies, then we can intervene, maybe.

    July 19, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  14. umish

    Stay out of Syria and we are not the world police.

    July 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  15. thelastindependent

    The fact is the world is on fire. One way or another, we are going to get burned. It's just a question of how many people will have to die in the inferno.

    July 19, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  16. lance

    u.s.a. is a broke in debt nation that needs to clean its own house and stay out others countries afairs.

    July 21, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  17. Brett Champion

    None of the "risks" of non-action by the US identified in this piece are at all dangerous to the national interests of the United States.

    July 23, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
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    August 1, 2013 at 7:11 am | Reply
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