Senator John McCain today called for the United States to begin active intervention on behalf of Syrian rebels to assist them in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s government. (1) The Republican Senator called for airstrikes against government forces as well as military equipment and training for the rebels.
This comes in the wake of a fraudulent vote on a new constitution as well as the largest government offensive into the rebel-held city of Homs. The latter action more accurately reflects Assad’s preferred means of negotiation. Government forces unleashed artillery barrages, tanks and helicopter gunships in an all-out assault upon the city. Not only are local hospitals being overwhelmed by the casualties, but now there are reports that patients are being tortured rather than treated. (2)
Senator McCain is correct. It is high time that the United States actively intervene in Syria to stop the massacre of civilians. Given the certainty of a Security Council veto thanks to the self-interested vetoes of autocratic Russia and China, it is necessary that President Obama secure the full support and cooperation of the Arab League. It will also be necessary to gain support from Turkey and Israel before beginning operations.
A Plan with Benefits
As Common Sense has previously argued, a military intervention makes sense for a number of reasons:
- Bashar the Butcher. On a purely local level, Bashar al-Assad is a far worse butcher than Muammar Qaddafi. The Syrian despot has already exceeded by multiples the number of civilian casualties in Libya that prompted U.N. intervention. Nor was the Libyan opposition any better organized or prepared than the Syrian opposition currently is, one of the main arguments currently being used against intervention; (3)
Syrian Russian-made T-62 tanks shell civilians
- Advance of Democracy.Toppling the Assad regime and helping the Syrian people establish a democracy – regardless of what party comes to power afterwards – should be an important goal in the democratization of what remains one of the more authoritarian regions on earth. The United States should actively pursue the role of “Architect of Democracy” when circumstances warrant (click on link to see article), such as they do in Syria.A democratic Syria stands a good chance of following Turkey down the road to becoming a substantially pluralistic and liberal country. Lebanon is a good proxy. Despite the long years of turmoil, civil unrest and sectarianism in the country – much of it fomented by the Assads – Lebanon has long been recognized as one of the more liberal democratic of the Arab states.(4) The Lebanese and Syrian people are essentially identical and belonged to the same Ottoman and French province until the French created an independent Lebanese Republic in 1926. They are generally very cosmopolitan and pluralistic;
- To Russia with Love. The overthrow of Assad would be a blow to Russian prestige and Russian influence in the Middle East. This is entirely a good thing. Russia has had a free hand in their “near abroad” since the September 11th attacks on the U.S. It is time for the America to more aggressively resist the geopolitical enlargement of Russia, and taking out Syria is a good first step. It is too far for them to intervene directly, and not a vital enough interest for them to consider serious retaliation (unlike, for example, Georgia or Ukraine);
- A Prosperous Levant. A democratic Syria would benefit enormously from the lifting of the heavy hand of state control and restrictions imposed by the Assad regime. Liberalization of the Syrian economy would certainly produce benefits with Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Syria might even enter into a economic and political agreement with Israel, negotiating a return of the Golan Heights as well as Israeli investment and technology in exchange for recognition of Israel, a definitive peace treaty and market access;
- Isolating Teheran. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the short-term, to toppling Assad is to remove Iran’s last friend in the region. It reduces Iran’s influence outside of the Persian Gulf, strikes a blow at their prestige, and severs – or at least severely restricts – the critical pipeline of weapons, personnel and funds from Iran to Hezbollah. Given the U.S. need to ratchet up the pressure on Iran in order to avoid war, this step would be crucial in isolating Teheran even further in the world and could be a key step in avoiding an Israeli air strike on the Iranians.
Of course, there are arguments against intervention. I feel that they are at best weak, irrelevant or simply wrong. Some of the most common are:
- Security Council backing essential. Approval of military intervention by the Security Council would be ideal, but it is not going to happen. Russia and China have already made it plain that they will not support a military intervention under any circumstances. Yet that does not remove the moral onus for inaction, nor would it be the first time that the United States acted without an express SC mandate. The key is to not act unilaterally. The full support of the Arab League and Turkey will deliver full credibility to US actions; furthermore, it can be expected that most U.S. allies will support intervention, without necessarily participating in it. The key exception would probably be Germany. The agreement of some of the key “unaligned states”, like India and Brazil, would be a sufficient proxy for a UN-mandate for the US to proceed;
- The US should mind its own business.As a general rule, this is good policy. It breaks down when genocide, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, or wars of aggression are being carried out. The fact is that the US is the keeper of the global order. We don’t have a responsibility to intervene in every conflict, but we do have a responsibility to stop the most extreme cases of abuse. Syria is clearly in this category.Furthermore, I believe that it is in the interest of the United States, and of the international community as a whole, to rid the world of violent dictators and to replace them with democracies. The more democracies there are in the world, the stronger and more resilient to challenges the international system will be;
- The Syrian opposition isn’t ready. Neither was the Libyan opposition. If anything, the Libyans were in worse shape. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Syrian resistance will be better organized after being massacred in Homs. The resistance will only be able to organize under the cover of US air power and with US equipment;
- There are jihadists among the Syrian resistance. There were jihadists among the Libyan resistance as well, but that didn’t stop us. Qaddafi used to send all his “undesirables elements” off to Afghanistan to fight infidel abroad, rather than keeping them at home to make trouble. Later they came back and made real trouble for him. We work with what we have. It is folly to expect the entire Syrian opposition to belong to the local Rotary Club. It is enough to work towards a democratic endgame and then attempt to engage Syria and prevent a slide towards sectarianism;
- The new regime may be hostile to the U.S. The present regime is hostile to the U.S. Bashar al-Assad is a key buyer of Russian military equipment and shares the naval station at Tartus with the Russian Navy. He is also a friend of President Ahmadinejad, and a key conduit for Iranian weapons to Hezbollah and intelligence operatives to the West. How likely is it that his replacement will be much worse?
It is unlikely that Syrians would establish an overtly religious government, one that establishes Sharia law, a religious police and is intolerant of pluralistic values. There are too many religious minority groups for that outcome to be likely or stable (4). Even if they did so establish themselves, it would be no worse than our ally Saudi Arabia.Syria is not Afghanistan. It is too near major centers of US and allied power for Al Qaeda to successfully establish itself. . Certainly there might be cells, but it would not become an untouchable refuge as Afghanistan was before 2002.
- We shouldn’t upset Russia and China. Why not?
(3) Number of civilian casualties in Syria vary but are estimated at over 7,000
(4) Sunni Muslims account for 74% of the population, 12% are Shia, 10% are Christian, and 3% are Druze. “Syria – International Religious Freedom Report 2006″. U.S. Department of State. 2006. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2006/71432.htm