WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is right to resist the mounting pressure for military intervention in Syria. Action by U.S. forces may or may not make the situation better — but certainly could make things worse.
This assessment could change, of course. It would be reasonable to consider intervention if such action were necessary to protect U.S. national security interests or prevent the kind of genocide we saw in Rwanda. At present, neither condition is met.
This view may seem cold and uncaring.
According to the United Nations, more than 70,000 people have been killed in two years of brutal conflict between rebel groups and the heavily armed regime of Bashar al-Assad. More than a million Syrians have fled the country, a million more are internally displaced, and major cities have been turned into rubble-strewn battle zones.
On Monday, Assad’s prime minister, Wael al-Halki, narrowly escaped assassination in Damascus when rebels targeted his convoy with a car bomb. The attack demonstrated that even in heavily guarded parts of the capital, the regime is vulnerable and under attack.
And U.S. officials now believe — but say they cannot be certain — that the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons in several instances against rebel forces. Obama once said this was a “red line” that Assad must not cross. Last week, he called reports of the use of sarin nerve gas a “game changer” that could provoke international action.
“We cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations,” Obama said. Note, however, the qualifiers “systematic” and “civilian,” which appear to set a standard of depravity that even the Assad regime has not reached.
Obviously, the president is not eager to wade into another Middle East war. Critics who are braying at him to do something — anything — to relieve the agony of the Syrian people should have to spell out just what they think Obama ought to do.
The hills, valleys and ancient cities of Syria have little in common with the empty deserts of Libya, where the limited use of U.S. air power in support of allied forces was enough to tip the scales against Moammar Gaddafi. Syria lies at the heart of the Arab world. Its heavily armed and deeply entrenched government has long had the support of such powers as Russia and Iran — and is still backed by a substantial minority of the population. The Assad regime is weakened but far from defeated.
Official U.S. policy is that Assad must go. But if the Arab Spring has taught the world anything, it is that when despots are toppled, it matters who takes their place. In the case of Syria, which lies at a strategic crossroads in an exceedingly dangerous part of the world, it matters a great deal.
The rebel “army,” such as it is, has been increasingly dominated over the past months by groups of Islamist fighters who are proving themselves well-organized, disciplined and effective on the battlefield. Officials in neighboring Jordan are concerned that these Islamists aligned with al-Qaida could take power in at least parts of Syria. Jordan’s King Abdullah, visiting Washington last week, warned of a “fragmentation of Syrian society” involving the rise of “militant terrorist organizations.”
It would be wrong to seek the survival of a dictator as brutal and oppressive as Assad solely because of his effectiveness at squelching militant Islam. But it would be foolish to give advanced weapons and training to rebels who, after dealing with Assad, are likely to threaten U.S. allies and interests.
The United Nations is essentially powerless because Russia, using its veto, will forbid any meaningful action by the United Nations Security Council. This means that if the United States were to intervene, it would be perhaps under NATO or as part of some “coalition of the willing.” But while there’s lots of gnashing of teeth in Western capitals, there is little stepping up to the plate.
Would U.S. intervention at least save civilian lives? Perhaps.
But if, say, the regime responded to a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone by using its armored vehicles in even more brutal attacks against innocent towns and villages, what would we do then? Try to destroy all the tanks as well? Start using drones to blast Assad’s palaces in hopes of taking him out? Put boots on the ground?
What’s happening in Syria is enough to break your heart. But for now, the right thing to do is stay out.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.