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The Syria debate, continued

My column last week arguing that American intervention would probably not have helped Syria has generated a lot of discussion, both positive and negative. Some of the discussion has been productive and useful, even if some has been of the predictably low caliber which anyone who has has been immersed in the Syria debate over the last two years would regrettably expect. Robin Yassin-Kassab published a particularly thoughtful rebuttal yesterday "Fund Syria's Moderates" on FP, which offers a good opportunity to respond to some of the major objections which have been circulating.

It's easy to empathize with the anger of people horrified by the carnage and desperate to see something done about it. But as satisfying as moral outrage might be, it's not enough and is rarely a guide to good policy. For a policy to effectively respond to moral horrors, it has to have a reasonable chance of actually working. The massive human suffering and the deterioriating conditions in Syria do compel greater efforts. But they do not compel misguided actions which would ultimately have little effect or make things worse at great cost. My opposition to intervention, explained at length in this February 2012 CNAS report, has always been based not on a moral judgement about whether to be outraged about Syria, but on the analytical judgement that the actions which might plausibly be taken would not be likely to bring an end to the conflict and would probably make things worse. It's true that I'm strongly predisposed against American military interventions in the region, and that my views are deeply shaped by the experience of Iraq -- but that didn't stop me from supporting the intervention in Libya where there was a clear opportunity to do good at an acceptable cost.

The reality is that at this time last year, nobody who looked seriously at the strategic landscape believed that a limited military intervention could easily resolve the conflict. The best overview of which I was aware came in March 2012, from four Brookings scholars not known for their anti-interventionist views (Dan Byman, Ken Pollack, Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh). They reviewed six policy options including diplomacy, arming the opposition, a Libya-style air campaign, and invasion. They concluded that "ousting Asad will not be easy.. every policy option to remove him is flawed, and some could even make the situation worse." They offered detailed, sharp analysis of all six options and found all of them bedeviled by serious flaws. Those risks might have been worth taking, and the escalating costs worth paying -- Doran, in particular, emphasized in a Twitter exchange yesterday that he had always backed more aggressive action despite the risks, which I fully believe - but that is a different argument than the one which pretends that easy solutions ever existed. They didn't.

I remain unconvinced that either limited intervention or an earlier arming of the opposition would have made things better in Syria, and continue to believe that the slim chances of a political solution justified the effort. And I don't agree that the situation would have been different if only the West had more aggressively armed the opposition, as Yassin-Kassab urges. That may have somewhat shifted the balance of power in their favor, but would likely have produced most of the same dynamics we have seen over the last six months, including the shift of power to the men with guns, the hurting stalemate on the ground, the intra-rebel clashes, and the regime's tactical escalation. But we can't really know, and that's the past. What about the current situation? Several commenters asked the critical questions whether the changed strategic terrain changes the calculus of intervention. Clearly, much has changed over the last two years, and many who once opposed intervention now support it or have grown bitter with international inaction.

Some things have not changed. There are still almost no conditions under which a direct American or NATO military intervention would be wise, as Yassin-Kassab acknowledges. There is still little reason to believe that limited measures would suffice to tip the balance of the vicious struggle on the ground, which leaves the problem of a slippery slope towards ever deepened involvement unchanged. Arming the politically disorganized and internally divided opposition is unlikely to rapidly end the conflict, guarantee Western influence, or make Jubhat al-Nusra and other radical forces disappear. And overall, policy choices have to be guided by a sober assessment of the likely risks and costs.

Three big things have changed in significant ways, though. First, the virtually unbelievable scope of human suffering gives profound urgency to the crisis, while the hopes for a political solution have largely ended. There was a logic behind the diplomatic efforts, of seeking to avoid militarization, isolate Assad at home and abroad for his war crimes and inhumanity, reach out to the Syrian majority in support of a political transition, and prevent a collapse into anarchy. But those have almost entirely disappeared, and conditions on the ground have radically changed. If it must be war then we need to recognize that reality.

Second, the regime's growing use of airpower against not only rebels but civilians does change the calculations over some kind of de facto no-fly zone or incapacitation of the regimes air capabilities. Last year, when Assad's forces were rarely using airpower, a no-fly zone made little sense, but the rapid escalation of such attacks does very significantly increase the value of somehow countering it. The risks of a slippery slope towards quagmire remain real, and I am not advocating such a move. But this is one area where the arguments in favor of such action have clearly grown stronger and need to be carefully considered.

Third, with the political track essentially dead and the transition to an insurgency and civil war complete, the objections to arming the rebels have largely faded. It would have been better by far had Syria not taken this wrong turn, but thanks to Assad's brutality it did and there is no going back. That suggests a more hands-on approach to coordinating and increasing the flows of aid into the hands of an organized political leadership. Yassin-Kassab in the end argues in favor of "funding the moderate Islamists and secularists of the Syrian National Coalition, which will then feed the hungry and fund the fighters, empowering them to buy the weapons they need". On this, we actually agree.

Yassin-Kassab misinterpreted my argument that "The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage," which he calls a recipe for mass slaughter. But my point was not to cut off those funds, but rather the urgent need to coordinate and rationalize those flows. The uncoordinated, often competitive, financing of favored proxies by outside players has actively contributed to emergent warlordism, intra-rebellion clashes, and absence of a coherent political strategy. My recommendation was more along the lines of recent American efforts to help organize a mechanism for directing aid through a centralized opposition political-military framework. Those efforts, by most accounts, have withered on the vine, and might not work, but they should be a diplomatic focus. But there should be no illusions that this will lead to easy success. There are virtually no examples in modern history of the external arming of rebels succeeding - no, the support for the Afghan jihad most certainly doesn't count given what followed -- and many examples of such aid making conflicts bloodier, longer, and more intractable. But we are where we are.

I'm glad that my essay has prompted so much debate, though too much of it continues to fall along well-established fault lines. I had acknowledged some of my own mistakes in the hope of sparking similarly self-critical analysis in a policy debate where nobody has done especially well. The fiasco in Syria cries out for an open mind and creative thinking, and last week I urged readers to carefully consider a number of alternative proposals currently in circulation (including those by by Andrew Tabler, Fred Hof, and Salman al-Shaikh and Michael Doran). I hope this debate continues and can find a more effective response.

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