The US, Europe and the Gulf states want regime change in Syria so they are starving the regime and feeding the opposition. They have sanctioned Syria to a fare-thee-well and are busy shoveling money and arms to the rebels. This will change the balance of power in favor of the revolution. Crudely put, the US is pursuing regime-change by civil-war. This is the most it can and should do.
President Obama does not want to intervene directly in Syria for obvious reasons. The US has failed at nation-building twice before in the Middle East. Some suggest that the “third time is a charm,” but Americans should not risk it. Voodoo policy analysis is not what the US needs today. Arguing that if only the US had done things differently in Iraq, Iraqis would not have radicalized or fallen into emulous factionalism is hokum. We must not allow ourselves to be talked into direct intervention in Syria today. Every student of the Middle East knows that Iraq had little sense of national political community to hold it together. The fact that it fell apart when the US Roto-Rootered Saddam’s regime should have been expected. The same thing is likely in Syria. Civil war and radicalization may not be avoidable. Syrians have many hard choices to make about their future. The chances that they will make them peacefully are small.
With America’s economy in the dumps, its military badly bruised, its reputation among Muslims in tatters, and its people fatigued by nation-building gone awry, this is no time to launch an intervention in Syria.
Military intervention would undoubtedly be expensive and dangerous. In all likelihood it would back-fire, leaving the US in possession of a broken Syria in desperate need of rebuilding. Syria is a nation the size of Iraq with insufficient sources of revenue. It produces little the world wants to buy. It hardly produces enough electricity for three hours of coverage a day. The school system is in a shambles. Government institutions will fall apart once the revolution wins. They are staffed by Baathists, recruited for loyalty to the regime and the Assad family. No revolutionary government will rehire them. They will purge them from top to bottom and employ the hundreds of thousands of jobless Syrians who have sacrificed for the revolution, lost family and struggled in the face of tyranny. Anyone who believes that Syria will avoid the excesses of Iraq, where the military, government ministries, and Baath Party were dissolved and criminalized is dreaming. If the US becomes militarily involved by destroying the presidential palace and military installations, it will own Syria.There will be no military to keep order and stop potential looting. If disorder and civil strife breaks out when the regime is destroyed, will the US feel obliged to step in? Will it discipline the 60 militias that now claim to represent the revolutionary forces? If the death toll rises after the regime falls, will the US surge its forces to stop the killing?
Already the Syrian opposition has asked for 12 billion dollars in start up money for the first six months when they come to power. This is chicken feed. Anyone who knows anything about Syria’s 24 million inhabitants, knows that they will need a lot more than 12 billion to stabilize and help rebuild Syria. The US spends 12 billion dollars every three months in Afghanistan. In 2010, the US was spending $6.7 billion in Afghanistan every month compared with $5.5 billion in Iraq. Few Americans believe this money was well spent. To believe that Syria would cost less is rash.
The US has been down the road of nation-building in the Middle East before. It is not good at it. The US wants regime-change without the responsibilities. Many pundits argue that the US must dive into Syria directly rather than build up the opposition slowly, but that would be a fool’s errand. If the US has learned anything, it is that it cannot sort out issues of power-sharing and national identity for Middle Eastern countries. The road to national unity cannot be paved in Washington. In the end, Syrians must find their own way and choose their own national leaders. Ahmad Chalabi and Hamid Karzai seemed like good choices when they were first held up. They had many winning qualities and looked better than the alternatives. But they turned out not to be the right leaders for Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no indication that the US could do a better job of picking winners in Syria. Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council, seemed to have all the qualities of a future Syrian president: he is Sunni, French educated, and has a long history of espousing liberalism, moderation, and democracy. But it only took months before leaders in his own party attacked him for treason, dictatorship and dishonesty and forced him to resign. Today, the Syrian opposition is leaderless. Over sixty militias are competing on the ground for cash and Kalashnikovs.
Already, we are being told that if we had only intervened earlier with our military, Syrians would have been unified, liberal and moderate. Only because we have delayed, they are becoming radical and and Islamized. This is not a convincing argument. Syrians are divided because they have no tradition of unity and the Baath has destroyed politics for 50 years. Nothing America can do will erase that legacy of political underdevelopment.
It seems heartless to stand by and do so little as massacres such as that carried out at Houla continue. More than 13 thousand Syrians have been killed in the last 14 months of revolution. All the same US intervention is not the solution. American troops killed over 10 thousand Iraqis in the first month of invasion in 2003. They killed a further 120,000 Iraqis in anger by the time the country was stabilized and safe to leave – and even then Iraq remains in turmoil and a new dictatorship seems to be taking shape. Car bombs are a daily occurrence in Baghdad.
In all likelihood, the Syrian revolution will be less bloody if Syrians carry it out for themselves. A new generation of national leaders will emerge from the struggle. They will not emerge with any legitimacy if America hands them Syria as a gift. How will they claim that they won the struggle for dignity, freedom and democracy? America cannot give these things. Syrians must take them. America can play a role with aid, arms and intelligence, but it cannot and should not try to decide Syria’s future, determine winners, and take charge of Syria. If Syrians want to own Syria in the future, they must own the revolution and find their own way to winning it. It is better for Syria and it is better for America.