Intervening to win?

Based on his prior scholarly and advocacy work, it's safe to say that Bob Pape has not been a huge fan of U.S. military interventions.  In Bombing to Win, he argued that the coercive effect of air power had been wildly overstated.  In Dying to Win, he argued that the presence of foreign troops and bases are most likely to inspire suicide terrorism.  Pape was a foreign policy advisor to Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, which evinced a foreign policy based on non-interventionism.  There's been some more-than-mild disagreements with Pape's scholarly conclusions, but to date he's articulated a very clear and consistent message warning about the risks of foreign interventions.

Which is why his New York Times op-ed today is so damn surprising.  His basic argument: 

A new standard for humanitarian intervention is needed. If a continuing government-sponsored campaign of mass homicide — in which thousands have died and many thousands more are likely to die — is occurring, a coalition of countries, sanctioned by major international and regional institutions, should intervene to stop it, as long as they have a viable plan, with minimal risk of casualties for the interveners....

Limited military force to stop campaigns of state-sanctioned homicide is more pragmatic than waiting for irrefutable evidence of “genocide.” It will not work in every case, but it will save large numbers of lives. It also promotes restraint in cases where humanitarian intervention would be high-risk or used as a pretext for imperial designs.

As the world’s sole military superpower, the United States will be at the center of many future debates over humanitarian action. Rather than hewing to the old standard of intervening only after genocide has been proved, the emerging new standard would allow for meaningful and low-risk military action before the killing gets out of control.

This is quite the conclusion coming from Pape, and, at a minimum, is hard to square with some of his prior work (though, it should be noted, it is consistent with what he wrote in April 2011).  I wonder how it applies to Syria.... oh, here's the relevant paragraphs: 

Syria is, I admit, a tough case. It is a borderline example of a government’s engaging in mass killings of its citizens. The main obstacle to intervention is the absence of a viable, low-casualty military solution. Unlike Libya, where much of the coastal core of the population lived under rebel control, the opposition to Syria’s dictatorial president Bashar al-Assad, has not achieved sustained control of any major population area. So air power alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.

If a large region broke away from the regime en masse, international humanitarian intervention could well become viable. Until then, sadly, Syria is not another Libya. A mass-homicide campaign is under way there, but a means to stop it without unacceptable loss of life is not yet available.

I'm not sure how keen I am on military intervention into Syria right now, but if one employs Pape's own criteria, then these paragraphs seem like some serious hand-waving.  First, it's not a "borderline example" of atrocities.  The UN estimated more than 5000 dead back in December -- that meets the "thousands have died" criteria, and if the status quo persists, thousands more are going to die. 

Second, one could argue that Assad's ability to repress has been severely compromised.  If it's really true that Assad's forces no longer control half the country -- and that's a big if -- then creating an enclave would be easier than Pape suggests. 

Again, I'm not suggesting that the United States should do this -- there would be a lot of policy externalities and second-order effects to consider.  What I'm suggesting is that Pape's sudden embrace of humanitarian intervention -- and subsequent rejection of that option in Syria -- is just damn puzzling.

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

I don't think Bashar Assad can see his shadow

The AP breathlessly reports that Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow today, which means another six weeks of winter.  Based on recent data, I'm wondering if Syria's Bashar al-Assad can say the same thing. 

Earlier this week the U.S. intelligence heads testified on Syria, and offered some surprising assessments:

Syrian President Bashar al Assad will not be able to maintain his grip on power in the wake of a wave of opposition that has dragged on for almost a year, America’s top intelligence officials told Congress today.

“I personally believe it’s a question of time before Assad falls,” James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.  CIA Director David Petraeus added, “I generally subscribe to that as well.”

Clapper said “it could be a long time” before the Assad regime falls because of “the protraction of these demonstrations” and a Syrian opposition that remains fragmented.  Despite that, Clapper said “I do not see how long he can sustain his rule of Syria.”

Hey, remember how, a year ago, Clapper got into trouble for being honest about the state of affairs in Libya despite his honesty being a political inconvenience?  This is precisely why I find his testimony so credible. 

Recent facts on the ground buttress Clapper's assessment -- as does the Financial Times' David Gardner's reportage, which is chock-full of interesting facts about the Assad regime's constrained ability to repress:

The [Assad] regime believed it could crush the uprising, which began in mid-March after revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, by the end of April and then in the summer Ramadan Offensive. It failed.

These operations revealed its reliance on two dependable units -- the 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, made up of Alawites, the heterodox Shia minority that forms the backbone of the regime, and commanded by Mr Assad’s volatile younger brother, Maher. Whenever the Assads deployed units with a rank-and-file reflecting Syria’s 70 per cent Sunni majority -- as they had to if their offensives were to cover more than the hot spots of the moment -- defections ensued.

Even more interesting is Gardner's take on the evolving Russian position:

Russian diplomats…despite their rhetoric, have been talking to Syrian opposition figures and, according to the latter, carefully considering the Arab League proposals. As a veteran U.S. diplomat puts it, “there is a squishiness to where they [the Russians] are now”.

Russia does have a commercial interest in Syria, and arms the regime but the value of this depends on whether it will get paid, by a government running out of cash. It is only six years since Moscow had to write off more than $10bn in unpaid Syrian debts from the Soviet era.

Its real interest is in retaining its base facilities at the port of Tartus, its last naval asset in the Mediterranean. For that it will eventually need to reach an understanding with Syria’s future, not hold on to its past. Tartus is a long-term strategic asset. The Assads are no longer a long-term proposition.

This is new and interesting information, and does appear to track multiple reports that the negotiations in Turtle Bay will lead to an actual Security Council resolution on Syria. If Russia cuts a deal with the opposition and removes its veto from multilateral action, how long can Assad hold out? 

What do you think? Will Assad be out of power in Syria inside of six weeks or not?