Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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What Does Intervention in Syria Look Like?

by Ed Husain
February 9, 2012

Demonstrators protest against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Binsh near Idlib (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). Demonstrators protest against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Binsh near Idlib (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).


Today on CNN.com, I write about the myth of “international intervention” in Syria. Military options in Syria would require a huge dependence on U.S. armed forces. I also ask questions that are yet to be answered by proponents of forceful involvement in a country that borders global hotspots in Israel, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. The piece appears below:

Some of the bravest, noblest women and men I have met are members of the United States armed forces. To them, military intervention is not about winning a debate on television or sounding smart on Twitter. With the United Nations ruling out support for military options to stop the bloodbath in Homs in Syria, leading U.S. commentators are calling for NATO and the Arab League to intervene militarily.

In reality, this would mean the United States would once again carry the heavy burden of war. In NATO’s recent operation in Libya, the United States provided 75 percent of the reconnaissance data, surveillance, intelligence, and refueling planes. Syria is not Libya, and NATO without the United States is not up to the job.

The Arab League is no match for a brutal Syrian regime backed by Russia, China, and Iran.

In essence, therefore, we must stop pretending about NATO or the Arab League intervening and accept that it is not “international intervention,” but U.S. military intervention that is being sought in yet another Muslim-majority country. The Muslim dimension is important because the lessons of Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan are that, invariably, intervention leads to occupation, which leads to varying degrees of Islamist radicalization.

Whatever the motivations to advance U.S. military intervention, we need to address the following questions before contemplating placing U.S. armed forces in harm’s way again, and demanding the U.S. taxpayer foot the bill.

First, what does such U.S. military involvement look like? In military terms, what is the “TTP?”–the envisaged tactics, techniques and procedures for U.S. armed forces? Is intervention designed to create a safe human corridor through which besieged Syrian citizens in Homs can escape, or are we talking about all-out regime change?

Second, if Assad were to be removed by force or arrested by U.S. soldiers for war crimes, who could rule Syria without an ongoing, costly U.S. troop presence on the ground? The U.S.-led, allied mistake in Iraq–to dismiss the Ba’ath party from power — led to years of chaos and killing. Today, the Syrian business sector, media, education, security, mosques, and police forces are controlled by the Ba’ath party. What happens to this embedded national infrastructure? In other words, what is the day-after plan?

Third, how does the United States propose to head off the hostilities of China and Russia, who are Syria’s allies? Additionally, Hezbollah, Iran, and assorted jihadist groups will see U.S. forces as sitting targets in an Arab country. Al-Qaeda in Iraq will be revived with renewed strategic depth and alliance with terrorists in Syria. What is the potential military and strategic blowback in exposing U.S. forces to an array of enemies at one stroke?

Fourth, intervening in Syria sets a new precedent. The Economist reports of unrest in China. If, buoyed by U.S. intervention in Syria, Chinese protesters were to take to the streets and Beijing proceeded to unleash another Tiananmen Square-style massacre, would the United States consider military strikes on China? Why not? Put simply, what “third and fourth tier effects,” as they are known by military strategists, have not been thought about by interventionists?

I am convinced that military options in Syria will do immeasurably more harm than good. My conviction stems from living in Syria during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and visiting Syria regularly over the last decade. I learned that Syria is a complex nation–its ethnic, sectarian, tribal and religious composition is fragile. Thankfully, the White House and State Department have so far steered clear of pursuing military options. But the war drums are being beaten in the U.S. media and on the think-tank circuit.

Conventional thinking will not solve Syria’s complex conflict. These are the questions that should be on the table: How can a face-saving exit route for Assad be found? Will Russia provide a home, or Iran? If protesters in Syria are democracy activists, what stops them from working with their democratic neighbor, Israel? The answer to that question tells us much about anti-Israeli, and by extension, anti-American sentiment in Syria. How can Turkey and Arab nations persuade the opposition to return to nonviolent protest? Who can hold the country together after Assad’s departure?

War is a costly, deadly last resort. Diplomacy, sanctions, freezing assets, travel bans, and international isolation will hasten Assad’s demise. He is self-destructing, and we do not need to thump our chests in the midst of a fiscal crisis with the false glory of “mission accomplished” in a country that shares borders with Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.



  • Posted by Dale

    I believe you are limiting what the role of any foreign intervention would look like in Syria, it doe not have to be boots on the ground. As a veteran of the Kosovo campaign as well as the Iraq Campaign, I have a bit of operational knowledge in regards to such issues.

    Realistically an air campagin ala’ Kosovo/Libya would empower the Sunni majority to shed the shackles of sectarian apartheid that is occuring in Syria.

    Furthermore, the insistence that Al Qaeda in Iraq would somehow magically enter into a pact with the Shia’ groups such as Hezbollah and other Iranian front groups that would more than likely be active in a post-intervention Syria is illogical. How many times did Al Qaeda leadership have to reign in Al Zarqawi and his personal war against the Shia’ of Iraq?, and how much oppression are the Sunnis of Iraq facing at the hands of the Shia’ majority? Zarqawi said in regards to the Shia’, “They are the enemy. Beware of them. Fight them. By God, they lie”, there was never an enemy of my enemy is my friend in regards to the Shia’ and AQI, remember how much of AQ and by proxy AQI ideology is from Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya, who clearly stated, “Many of [the rafidha] would favor the infidels within his heart more than he would favor the Muslims. That is why when the infidel Turks emerged frothe east and fought the Muslims and spilled their blood; in the lands of Khurasan and in Iraq and Sham and in the Peninsula and elsewhere, the rafidha were there to aid them in killing Muslims. And the Baghdad vizier known as al-‘Alqami; it was he and others like him who greatly aided
    them against the Muslims, as well as those who were in Al-Sham’s Aleppo.”

    Realistically, intervention in Syria, in my belief could be the catalyst for that cosmic war between the Shia’ and Sunni.

  • Posted by Chris S

    The USA is already stirring up the conflict in Syria, by supplying weapons the Free Syrian Army to stoke the fires of a civil war; provoking even more bloodshed to try and justify a “humanitarian intervention.” (aka bombing Syria with thousands of air strikes, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and destroying hundreds of billions in infrastructure.) If that is not bad enough, the USA is stretched so thin around the world, and suffocating under the shadow of a severe financial crisis. Sparking a conflict in Syria, where Iran, Russia, China and even India (half the world’s population) will undoubtedly involve them self, is a horrible position for the USA to find itself in, especially in it’s current status.

    I suggest the USA steer off the suicidal path of “aspiring world empire.” Because as history tells us over and over… it never ends well for the conquerors.

  • Posted by khaled

    No one asked for complete intervention they just want NO FLY ZONE

  • Posted by Herold S

    You only talk of Lebanon and Iraq. But the situation in #Syria is much more similar to Kosovo, Bosnia or Libya.

    In these cases, intervention has led to decent outcomes while without intervention the slaughter would have continued.

  • Posted by Dale

    Herold S has hit the nail on the head. I believe Mr. Husain was taking a more sensationalistic approach to intervention; hence the failure to address the successful use of no fly zones in conflicts such as Kosovo, in which the projection of air power only managed to stem the Serb aggression with minimal risk to US/NATO ground troops.

  • Posted by chris s

    Herold S : ” Bosnia or Libya.In these cases, intervention has led to decent outcomes while without intervention the slaughter would have continued.”

    Really? So Libya embroiled in it’s current civil war, 100 thousand civilian deaths, with Al Qaeda flags in Bengahzi is what you would call a “decent outcome” You had the #2 GDP nation in Africa with 0 dollar of national debt, and the highest standard of living in Africa besides parts of South Africa…

    what do you have now besides, death, destruction and chaos?

    Khaled: “They just want a NO FLY ZONE.”
    How do you think they achieve a “no fly zone”? By BOMBING anti aircraft weapons, airforce bases, electrical power stations, water resevoirs and even TV stations (to make sure only their propaganda can be heard)

    In Libya their “no fly zone” entailed over 9000 air strikes with an average of 50 innocent civilians killed with EACH strike. The west claims Assad has killed 5000 people (including armed insurgents) in the last 11 months… The USA will kill closer to 100 000 people in the same amount of time with their “no fly zone” and cause hundreds of billions in damage to critical Syrian infrastructure

    These are FACTS. not mis-guided opinions.