Global Policy Studies & International Security

The Syrian Crisis: Why Non-Intervention is for Ideologues and Opportunists

Since fighting broke out two years ago in Syria, roughly 70,000 have been killed and nearly a quarter of the nation’s 23 million people have been displaced.  Refugees flee into neighboring countries on a daily basis.  Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have all established camps near their Syrian borders to house these individuals and families. 

Syrian refugees are destabilizing neighboring countries, especially fragile post-war Iraq. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are waging a proxy war against Iran via the Syrian rebels to establish regional dominance. Russia and China are blocking UN Security Council intervention initiatives so as to maintain economic interests.  Moreover, European governments fear that inaction on their part will lead to unrest among their own growing Muslim populations.  So regardless of libertarian and isolationist calls to the contrary, the Syrian conflict is no longer local; it’s increasingly global. 

Why then, despite growing concern abroad and at home, has the United States stopped short of offering military support?  The Obama administration has valid fears.  After decade-long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington balks at the opportunity to spend billions of dollars and countless American lives on another nation’s civil war.  Additionally, it’s possible that weapons could drift into the hands of radical Islamists.  It would be a nightmare for any administration to see U.S. anti-aircraft weaponry used against commercial airplanes. 

There is one major flaw with this line of reasoning:  US reluctance to arm the rebels has not prevented extremists from receiving military aid.  America can withhold weapons all it wants, but extremist groups will benefit at the expense of the moderates.  Saudi Arabia, Qatar and private donors have been supplying opposition forces with cash and weapons since the beginning of the uprising.  Their goals are less about freeing people from tyranny and more directed towards establishing Sunni dominance. 

As a result, radical groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, have gained traction in rebel-controlled areas.  Jabhat al-Nusra’s financial backing and fighting efficiency have afforded it a great deal of respect among otherwise moderate populations.  This is despite the fact that it wishes to institute strict sharia law and has sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda.  As long as the United States fails to provide weapons to less ideological factions, groups like al-Nusra will dig their claws deeper into Syrian society. 

Other calls for non-intervention smack of ulterior motives.  Of course Russia wants America standing idly by while Assad remains in power. Moscow earns billions yearly in weapons sales to the Assad regime, and Syria is the site of Russia’s only Mediterranean naval port.  Furthermore, China, the largest energy importer from the region, needs to secure as many allies in the Middle East as possible.  The PRC’s economic engine requires oil. Although Syria is not a major petroleum exporter, China would nonetheless prefer that a non-Western aligned government sit in Damascus.  Make no mistake: calls for non-intervention from these sources are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to promote economic interests. 

In the end, the Obama administration’s decision to not provide moderates with weapons has ensured that their more radical counterparts receive the lion’s share.  If Islamic extremists gain more ground and if sectarian bloodshed spills across borders, the United States will have no choice but to respond.  Plus, if the allegations of chemical weapons use—corroborated by Israeli, French and British intelligence sources—turn out to be true, then Mr. Obama’s red line will have been crossed.  Action will be necessary not just for humanitarian support and regional stability, but to show the world that America stands by its promises.  Wait too long, though, and Washington will find that the percentage of opposition forces with progressive, pro-Western agendas will have declined significantly.  Unfortunately, other patrons with less noble intentions will have filled the void. Radicalization will take hold. 

Now is the time to arm more moderate factions before the extremists grab too much power.  U.S. Special Forces and the Turkish military will facilitate and monitor the transfers, so massive troop deployments will not be necessary.  This won’t be another Iraq.  In fact, the United States should offer greater support now to avoid larger entanglements later. 

Remember, U.S. forces stormed Afghanistan in 2001 because al-Qaeda used the failed state as a base of operations.  During the 90s, many would-be pundits claimed Afghanistan did not involve Americans.  It was not our problem.  Those pundits were wrong.  They’re wrong today about Syria.

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