Democracy Lab

It's Time to Act in Syria

Yes, it's true: Military involvement in Syria has its risks. But the costs of non-intervention are growing by the day.

The conflict in Syria now appears to be in stalemate; the Assad regime is unable to repress its opponents, but the Syrian opposition is also unable to overthrow the Assad regime. The conflict, then, rages on with no end in sight.

After experiencing the enormous costs and meager rewards of intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is understandable why the U.S. and many of its allies are wary of intervening now in Syria. Nor does their successful intervention in Libya last year incline them to do so in Syria now, since a) the Libyan operation took much longer and was much costlier than they anticipated, and b) toppling Assad appears likely to be a far more formidable task than toppling Qaddafi.

Not intervening in Syria, though, has serious costs as well. The indefinite continuation of the conflict there not only means continued suffering for the Syrian people, but also for neighboring states that are partners with the West. Turkey and Jordan are having difficulty dealing with refugee flows from Syria -- which will only continue so long as the conflict continues. Little Lebanon not only risks being swamped by refugees, but the inter-communal conflict in Syria exacerbating its own inter-communal tensions. In addition, continued turmoil in Syria is going to have a negative impact on Israel at some point.

In order to halt or at least limit the harm that continued conflict in Syria is doing to the people there, and to the West's partners and interests in the region, America and its allies are going to have to do something to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime -- and do so sooner rather than later. A large-scale, American-led intervention, though, is not the only means available for doing this.

Arming the opposition is one option. But since the Assad regime is so well-armed and the Syrian opposition is so divided, arming the latter may do little to hasten the downfall of the former.

Something that the U.S. and its allies should do is to take measures that reduce the advantages which the Assad regime now has vis-à-vis its opponents. One of the most significant of these is that the Assad regime is able to employ air power and other heavy weaponry against its own people. The U.S. and its allies could impose a no-fly zone over Syria in order to deter the Assad regime from bombing its own citizens. But given the concern about Syria's dense Russian-supplied air defense system making it difficult for Western air forces to safely patrol Syrian air space, America and its allies could instead launch a missile attack aimed at destroying Syrian military aircraft on the ground as well as their airfields. This alone would considerably reduce the regime's military superiority.

In addition, the U.S. and its allies can do much to raise the costs to Assad's security forces of continuing to defend the regime, as well to provide incentives for them either to defect to the opposition, or simply drop out of the conflict by exiting the country. The U.S., after all, has now acquired considerable expertise in the use of drone missiles. Just the serious possibility that Syrian units or security force commanders themselves could be the targets of American drone attacks would provide a powerful incentive to the regime's security force commanders either to switch sides or just bug out. If enough of them can be incentivized in this way, the security services will become a less reliable means of oppression for the regime.

Further, America and its allies could target the leadership of the Assad regime itself. Those willing to kill large numbers of people (as well as put those they order to do the killings at risk by carrying out their orders) often prove remarkably averse to endangering their own precious lives. Just the prospect that they might be targeted will induce some to flee or defect. And the elimination of those who refuse to do either will serve to hasten the downfall of the regime.

Some might question the morality of targeting the leadership of the Assad regime. In my view, though, there is no morality at all in refusing to stop by whatever means necessary those who have harmed so many of their own people and will continue to harm them unless they are physically prevented from doing so.

Finally, it should be noted that not all of America's allies are as reluctant to intervene in Syria as the U.S. France in particular has indicated a desire to take more active measures against the Assad regime if only the U.S. would support its efforts. Washington should explore this with Paris as well as any other ally willing to actively work for the downfall of the Assad regime. To not do so will only undermine confidence among its allies in America's willingness to lead them (even if only from behind) -- something that the U.S. cannot afford.

Bringing down the Assad regime, of course, will not by itself end the divisions within the Syrian opposition. Indeed, the divisions among them are likely to increase after the demise of their common enemy. But this is a problem that cannot be avoided whether the Assad regime falls sooner or later, or whether America and the West help to bring it down or not. American and Western involvement in the downfall of the Assad regime, though, seems more likely to give them the opportunity to shape the post-Assad order than if they are not involved.

Similarly, many have expressed fear that al Qaeda and its allies are gaining ground with the Syrian opposition. Clearly, though, America and the West can do more to prevent this through getting involved in the Syrian conflict than not doing so and thus clearing the field for al Qaeda.  It should be recalled that in the 1990s, one of the aims of the Clinton Administration in aiding the Bosnian Muslims was not to let Iran be their principal external supporter. The same logic applies now.

Intervention is costly. But non-intervention is not a no-cost option. Indeed, it can lead to very high costs both for those pursuing this policy and for those depending on them. The task at hand, then, is not to try to avoid the potential costs of intervention through non-intervention, but to try to avoid them through more intelligent intervention.



Don't Give Up on the Arab Spring

Why America did the right thing in Libya -- and freedom will eventually win.

The cruel irony of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens's death will not be lost on Americans. If it wasn't for President Barack Obama's decision, however belated and reluctant, to intervene in Libya, the brutal dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi would very likely still be in power today. Stevens, in particular, had gained the respect of Benghazi's rebels for his strong support of their cause. He was, to use the cliché, a friend of Libya. But he is now dead, for reasons that are apparently tied to a movie that no one is Libya has actually seen.

For ordinary Americans, the understandable reaction is one of anger, even betrayal. We liberated them -- this time for humanitarian reasons, and even though our vital interests were not at stake. And now they besiege our embassy and kill our ambassador. When I woke up today, a friend asked me half-jokingly, "What's wrong with Muslims?" That is, whether we like it or not, the question that many -- including American liberals who have, time and time again, given "Muslims" the benefit of the doubt -- will be asking.

And it is here that narratives will collide. The anti-Islam film in question was a pretext much more than the cause of yesterday's violence. It could have been anything. Anti-American anger, even in Libya, the most pro-American country in the Arab world, remains palpable, lingering underneath the surface of apparent gratitude. But, that aside, even if the United States did everything on Arabs' wish lists, there would remain a small, influential fringe that would find another reason to hate -- or at least dislike and distrust -- the United States.

Outside of exceptional cases where the United States intervenes decisively on one side or another, Arab attitudes toward the world's preeminent power are generally what economists would call inelastic. In other words, even when the United States does "good" things -- such as ending the war in Iraq -- Arab public opinion does not seem to change all that much. Even in Libya, anti-American sentiment will almost certainly increase after the NATO operation fades from memory. In fact, in several Arab countries, U.S favorability ratings have been lower under Obama than they were in the final years of President George W. Bush's administration.

It is sometimes difficult for Americans to understand just how deep-seated Middle Eastern anger is. Some of it is illegitimate, but much of it is at least based on things that have actually happened. Algerians will bring up 1991, when what was then the region's most promising democratic transition was aborted by a Western-backed military coup. Iranians will often bring up 1953, when their democratically elected prime minister was toppled in a CIA-sponsored coup. These dates, far from a remote, forgotten history, are very much alive for those who still suffer the consequences of those tragedies. Anti-Americanism can diminish, and probably will, but to expect an overnight transformation is fantasy.

Large pluralities or majorities in the Arab world are 9/11 "truthers" who believe that either the United States or Israel were somehow responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Yes, this is irrational -- one simply has to look at the fact that al Qaeda took credit for the attack. But many Arabs believed, well before Sept. 11, 2001, that the United States was not just a well-intentioned country that sometimes did very bad things, but a veritable force for evil. So it wasn't difficult for them to believe something that the vast majority of Americans simply couldn't -- that Americans could acquiesce or even actively support the murder of their own countrymen.

The easy response, for Americans suffering from Arab Spring fatigue, would be to give up on the Middle East. They could disengage, and treat the Arab world as what it seemed to be yesterday -- a place well outside the grasp of normal, reasoned political analysis. But that would be a grave mistake, especially now. It should be obvious that disengaging from the Arab world is what both Salafi extremists -- not to mention Arab dictators -- want. The more the United States disengages, the more room they will have to grow in influence and power, and the more commonplace events like those of last night will become.

For decades, the United States undermined Arab democracy through its consistent support of Arab autocrats. But the Arab uprisings have changed that basic calculus and upended our Faustian bargains with the region's despots (well, at least with some of them). In countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and of course Libya, interests and values are not fully aligned -- they never will be -- but they are as closely aligned as one can hope. And that is not an opportunity that should be squandered. In all three countries, the United States is finally playing a positive, even crucial, role in supporting the economic recovery of democratically elected governments that, while deeply flawed, enjoy popular legitimacy.

Our commitment to these transitions has at times been tepid -- but there are those who would like the United States and Europe to dial down their efforts even more. Such calls must be resisted.

The White House must redouble its commitment to the Arab Spring. Across the region, Salafist extremists and other unsavory characters are trying to fill the power vacuum left by a weak and confused international community. Americans, now more than ever, need to hear a clear narrative of why Arab democrats need our support in their struggle against radicals. To put it more bluntly, what the Obama administration may need -- both to turn the tables on its critics at home and its enemies abroad -- is to opt for a "don't let the terrorists win" response. To be sure, it's a crude sentiment -- and one that can be used to justify nearly anything, as it was under the Bush administration. But today it actually makes sense. It has the added virtue of being not only good policy for the Arab world, but good politics back home.