When this past summer began, it seemed only a matter of time before the repressive Syrian regime fell and was replaced by a diverse assortment of disorganized but enthusiastic Syrian rebels in a democracy. Since then, the situation has deteriorated. Syria’s rebels, with minimal aid from the international community, have instead accepted the arrival of extreme Islamists carrying the experience, weapons, and tactics of a decade of insurgency against America and allied nations. This will certainly bolster the fight against Bashar al-Assad, but it will not bring victory to the people.
There was a time when we would commit to a foreign intervention without a realistic understanding of the consequences, simply because it seemed right to do so and it could lead to a better future. That was Iraq. We don’t do that anymore. So let us look at what would happen if action were taken in Syria.
Who are the rebels? Politically, it would be easy to point to the National Syrian Council. They have a nice website. They certainly argue a great deal. However, they are fractious, disorganized, and generally ineffective. They cannot be considered to be in command of the Free Syrian Army. For that matter, the FSA cannot be considered to be in command of the FSA. It is merely an umbrella organization, not an organized military command. Weapons are often homemade; rebel units have fundamental differences in ideology that make for tension and uncooperative chaos. There are brigades of rebels defending their families and homes from a brutal and coercive regime that abducts innocent men and women to be tortured and willingly slaughters children. However, there are also brigades of jihadists and extremists, foreign insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists. If al-Assad is defeated, there is little question but that the country will quickly be mired in a second civil war, this time between the various units of the FSA. The lessons that Egypt offers does not offer much optimism for the triumph of moderate democrats determined to build a free, inclusive Syria. Even though Morsi has been surprisingly moderate, it cannot be denied that the political victory of the Muslim Brotherhood was not what was envisioned when the US stepped up to support the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square. In order to ensure a moderate democratic outcome, a massive ground intervention would be needed to unseat al-Assad and put down the inevitable insurgency from the thwarted jihadists.
No one is willing to do that. Turkey is Syria’s neighbor and has the most responsibility of any nation to intervene. It refuses. The European Union won’t – even if they could do it without US military support, which they could not. Russia is blocking efforts by the international community to stop the violence, save for ineffectual UN negotiation efforts. China is supporting Russia. Gulf Cooperation Council countries are supporting the rebels, but they are limited in what they can do beyond supplying money, equipment, and weapons. Israel could do much more, and some have noted that Israeli intervention could topple al-Assad and create a friendly Syria that would help isolate Hezbollah from Iranian support. However, this would be a long shot, as Israel really doesn’t have the troop numbers to control the situation on the ground. They could topple Assad, but could not dictate what happens next. The US could, but only at great financial cost, loss of American and Syrian lives, tremendous strain put on the US military, and with a considerable political cost both at home and abroad. In the midst of dealing with a slow economy, high unemployment, and fiscal uncertainty – not least of which is the upcoming axe of sequestration to the Defense budget – America is not willing to start another Iraq – and that is what it looks like a full-scale intervention would likely become. It is difficult to muster much enthusiasm for a good deed in a part of the world where they are especially quick to be punished; particularly when one can see the punishment to come in even a cursory glance at the convoluted situation.
What is to be done in Syria, then? Intervention is out, even if Russia were to relent in its opposition in the UN. Al-Assad is a monster and has lost the credibility to lead the majority of his people. However, he is not about to step down – the consequences of losing are likely death for him. If jihadists come to dominate the FSA, the same will be true for the Alawites. They will be at grave risk. The best outcome would be for the moderate Syrians defending their families and homes to defeat al-Assad, push out the extremists, and form a peaceful, democratic Syria. But they don’t seem to be able to do so. The US and GCC countries can supply arms, equipment, food, and diplomatic and mediation support, but that has yet to net anything remotely like the optimum result sought. Even if the US began to include arms with the equipment it is currently supplying, it still would not guarantee an end to the violence.
The war will continue. The regime will not surrender. The Syrian military has yet to collapse as predicted. The FSA will continue to fight. The foreign insurgents and extremists will especially not stop, and will use car bombs, suicide bombers, and IED’s to kill large numbers of government forces and equally large numbers of civilians. And the international community will do as much as it feels it can do in the situation and under the circumstances: not a whole lot.
This is not to say that the situation is hopeless or will stagnate. Any little thing can decisively alter a situation. That could happen in Syria. Indeed, one cannot but hope it does; the situation is a sad one, and every day more innocent people suffer and die. However, such changes are by their very nature almost impossible to predict. (Though we do know that use of chemical weapons has been promised to result in an immediate US military response and could thus qualify as somewhat predictable, that is not the sort of change that anyone wants to see and is unlikely in the extreme.) More likely is the West using its influence to strengthen moderate FSA elements and suppress extremist groups; covert action is also not out of the question, though none has appeared to take place thus far.
As things stand, Syria faces an endless war: if the regime crushes the FSA, an insurgency will continue the violence; if the FSA prevails, another civil war will result. If it sounds like Iraq vs. Afghanistan, then there should be little surprise the world is not rushing to intervene. Until something changes, expect the US and its allies to focus on supporting moderate elements of the FSA, fostering political unity, and driving towards the democratic endgame as fast as the inevitably slow pace of such an approach allows. It may be slow, but it is better than endless war, and for all the blood that has been spilled, the Syrian people deserve a better end to this war than simply more of the same.