Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The Other Reasons for Invading Syria

by Micah Zenko
August 7, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs during clashes with Syrian army in Aleppo (Goran Tomasevic/Courtesy Reuters). A Free Syrian Army fighter runs during clashes with Syrian army in Aleppo (Goran Tomasevic/Courtesy Reuters).


As the fighting between the ever-weakening regime of President Bashar al-Assad and hundreds of armed opposition groups spreads and intensifies, pundits and policymakers are increasing their calls to intervene militarily in Syria’s civil war. The primary reason given for picking sides in this conflict is to protect unarmed civilians from the brutal and often indiscriminate force waged by Assad’s security forces. In tandem with this humanitarian impulse is the notion that giving weapons, intelligence, and logistics support to a select few, carefully vetted armed rebels will rapidly lead to regime change in Syria. Above all else, intervention proponents never claim that regime change will be very difficult, or require a single U.S. boot on the ground. As Paul Wolfowitz and Mark Palmer wrote last month: “No one is arguing for military intervention on the order of Afghanistan or Iraq.”

However, there are a range of other justifications that intervention proponents put forth, having nothing to do with protecting civilians or regime change in Syria. To attempt to gather support from different audiences, such proponents routinely provide a laundry list of justifications that rationalize the inherent risks and uncertain ultimate costs of military operations. For example, according to U.S. officials, the Libya intervention was necessary to repay European support for the war in Afghanistan, and send messages of resolve to other dictators, such as Assad, who it turns-out was not receptive.

Consider just three other reasons that intervention proponents have offered for invading Syria:

Syrians have especially long memories. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in a recent op-ed titled “We Will Pay a High Price if We do not Arm Syria’s Rebels”:

“Sooner or later some combination of the opposition groups will indeed control Syria. And when they do, their memories of who did what during the struggle to achieve a democratic Syria are going to matter far more to the U.S. and Europe than policy makers presently calculate…The eventual winners in Syria will matter a great deal to the health, wealth and stability of what is still the most geo-strategically important region in the world. Syrians will remember those who remember them, those who cared enough to help save their lives.”

Though Slaughter does not hypothesize what the “eventual winners” will do to America if President Obama does not authorize arming them today, it is a remarkable rationale that makes several assumptions. First, that the post-Assad political leaders of Syria will be the same individuals who received U.S. weapons. According to Rep. Mike Rodgers, Chairman of the House Permanent Intelligence Committee, there are at least 300 rebel groups in Syria, a quarter of whom “may be inspired” by Al Qaeda. Second, any country not arming the Syrian rebels will be remembered for their lack of enthusiasm, and suffer the wrath of Damascus for some period of time. Third, Syria’s political leaders will closely align their policy preferences with the United States, because the Obama administration armed them—rather than say the preferences of the Qataris or Saudis, who are providing weapons to Syrian rebel groups. Senator Marco Rubio echoed this notion when he contended: “Empowering and supporting Syria’s opposition today will give us our best chance of influencing it tomorrow.”

Consider some recent history. The United States provided battlefield intelligence, money, and weapons and ammunition (up to 65,000 tons a year by 1987) to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, some of whom later became members the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Not surprisingly, once the Taliban came to power it was not willingly directed by the United States, refusing repeated requests by the Clinton administration to kick out Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda leadership. In Rwanda, the United States didn’t provide arms or intervene militarily during the genocide in 1994, yet somehow Paul Kagame’s government finds itself able to accept $200M in U.S. foreign assistance every year. Likewise, the future leaders of Syria will act in their own national interests with whoever it needs to, regardless of who is arming or funding the revolution today.

Iran. In an op-ed that represents the opinion of many intervention proponents, Danielle Pletka wrote: “Ousting Tehran’s last reliable satellite regime and replacing it with a Sunni, democratic government would reassure our friends in the region that Washington is determined to stand up to Iran when necessary.” Described more vividly by James Dobbins at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week: “There’s nothing more effective I think to put the Iranian threat in some perspective and reduce its pressure on Israel than to flip Syria.” It is doubtful that Syria’s opposition will appreciate that their revolution is used to “flip” their country’s relationship with Iran. Furthermore, to restate the point about country’s acting in their own national interests, one often repeated side-benefit of regime change in Iraq was that a non-Saddam Hussein leader in Baghdad would both cooperate closely with America and serve as a bulwark against Iran—neither happened.

A transformative moment. As a Washington lobbyist hired by the Syrian opposition to drum up support on Capitol Hill admitted: “There is a window of opportunity. What we do now will affect the region for the next 20 to 30 years.” This sort of grandiose thinking echoes President George H.W. Bush who kicked-off the first Gulf War in 1991 by proclaiming “We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order.” It also reflects what many neo-conservative Bush administration officials proposed would be the tremendous spill-over gains from the shock-and-awe campaign that toppled Saddam Hussein. The costs ($810 billion and counting) and horrendous human consequences of the 2003 Gulf War should dissuade anybody that Washington can channel a revolution in Syria along a course that benefits only the interests of America and its allies in the Middle East.

The nine-month run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was a notable case of “justification fatigue,” where the intellectual arguments favoring regime change were more developed than the political-military plans to rebuild the country once Saddam fell. Whether in Syria, or elsewhere, citizens should carefully judge the merits of the many justifications offered, and decide for themselves whether it is worth the costs and consequences of intervening in another country.

Post a Comment 17 Comments

  • Posted by david Takaki

    Without having to go further, your binary of intervene/no intervention is a proffered strawman that only serves to illustrate your ignorance of what is going on inside Syria.

    Obama Administration’s response with commo equipment and intel supplied to resistance is the result of Slaughter’s work last fall.

    Unlike Zenko, AM Slaughter has had access to far more than she writes on, from both govt & non-govt sources This I know for a fact.

    Zenko writes on what he doesn’t know, spinning & repackaging it as “wisdom”.


  • Posted by Javed Mir

    So the situation is tough and seems to be not easily resolvable. My sense is that all the members of the Security Council could not apprehend it and delay led to this much bloodshed. It is just like saying: Damn it if you do it and damn it if you do not do it. Russia and other members of Security Council should take immediate steps to stop this bloodletting.

  • Posted by Amjad of Arabia

    While the West dithers and engages in endless soul searching trying to predict a future no one can possibly predict, the Russians and Iranians have no such qualms about sending arms,manpower and money to the Assad regime.

    This, ladies and gentlemen, is how a superpower loses its influence; by the indecisiveness and weakness of its ruling political class in the face of an adversary that clearly knows what it wants.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    “Whether in Syria, or elsewhere, citizens should carefully judge the merits of the many justifications offered, and decide for themselves whether it is worth the costs and consequences of intervening in another country.”
    Citizens should also carefully judge the lies that are being told, including:

    “ever-weakening regime of President Bashar al-Assad”

    The word “regime” is a give-away as top where this is going, and with defeats of the rebels everywhere and no popular support for them in Syria the “ever-weakening” description is curious.

    “protect unarmed civilians from the brutal and often indiscriminate force waged by Assad’s security forces.”

    Of course when the army is called in to put down a rebellion, in this case supported by several foreign countries including KSA and Qatar and neighboring Turkey, there will be brutal force, true of any government. But there is no evidence that it’s been “indiscriminate force” and the charges of massacres remain unproven. The most notorious alleged massacre in Houla in May, the one that resulted in the withdrawal of ambassadors and Chapter VII threats by Clinton, is still an open question. The UN report on the “Houla massacre” is still on somebody’s desk, at last report. And that’s, no doubt because it wasn’t a real massacre but a concocted one, along with other fictitious propaganda — a hallmark of this conflict.

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    “Whether in Syria, or elsewhere, citizens should carefully judge the merits of the many justifications offered, and decide for themselves whether it is worth the costs and consequences of intervening in another country.”

    “Citizens” have little influence these days on foreign policy, or on domestic policy, for that matter. Take this upcoming Potemkin election. The two major candidates are both pretty much aligned regarding foreign policy, although their rhetoric may seem to diverge on minor points. In other words, little opportunity is left for Americans to “vote the bums out.”

  • Posted by ally

    lets make an important assumption,the power at present in syria is the minority allawi,with turkey a major ally involved,and which is majority sunni,it has a huge minority,that is kurdish..and of the kurds,in turkey there is a minority allevi kurds who are allied with iran,there are extremely anti turkish and also anti-arab,and naturaly not to mention anti-west,they may be at present silent,but if there is explosion of tribal warfare,the entire region could destabilise,and the allevi kurds are economicaly and socially,more successfull,than the majority kurds who are sunni,thanks to iranian support.

  • Posted by naksuthin

    Before Americans get excited about helping the rebels trying to topple the regime…be aware that Christians…who make up 10% of the Syrian population are backing Assad against the rebel Islamist.

    They know that once the Islamist rebels come to power, their days in Syria are over.

    Just as Christians had to flee from Iraq after the fall of Saddaam and the rise of a Islamic state, Christians in Syria will be the next to be targeted after Assad.

    The US may not like Assad…but the alternative right now is islamic rebels who believe that this is a holy war.

    For more information Google “Syria, Christians”

  • Posted by May

    How can we even pretend to think that intervening again in the Middle East will make us popular in the region? Sure, we might gain a political ally or two, but the citizens of the region will absolutely be devastated by an infestation of US-grade weaponry. Not to mention, we don’t even have an idea of who these potential future leaders are and if they will be any better than Assad. We can end up with another Mubarak situation where we just support a dictator in the Middle East because it is an important area for our allies and our oil.

    This isn’t just a political debate – this is a discussion about human lives and enabling citizens to finally have control over their own destiny.

  • Posted by Mawloud Ould Daddah

    Syrian people is getting rid of a stalinian and terrorist and subversive dictature and if helped will be able to replace it by an opened and constructive and modernist and secularist democracy

  • Posted by Mawloud Ould Daddah

    Assad is smuggling his nuclear and chemical arsenal,which includes sarin and mustard gases,in Russia and Iran

  • Posted by Mawloud Ould Daddah

    Syrian people wants to build with Israel an appeased and confident and constructive relation and partnership and values israeli government and Prime Minister and President and people sincere solidarity

  • Posted by Mawloud Ould Daddah

    Like in cold war,Russia and China back the bad sides

  • Posted by Mawloud Ould Daddah

    Russia remains the evil power it had always been since 1914 bolshevic coup,dedicated to prevent peoples from enjoying the blessing of liberty

  • Posted by Mawloud Ould Daddah

    Russia deserves a new cold war,harsher than the precedent,it’s the only way to contain and calm down neo soviets

  • Posted by saleem

    Che Guevara, the Argentinian/Cuban hero said there will be 10 “Vietnams” before US is brought on its knees.

    Wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, The first Gulf, Iraq, Afganistan, Libya, Syria…..thats 7.
    The US is already bankrupt, its citizens unemployed and hungry ready to revolt.
    One wrong move into Iran and the whole region will be in flames to make a dozen more wars with its US economic interest in ashes forever, plus a scenario of civil war in the US.

    China will then be the only superpower – without firing a single shot.. Bravo America!!!

  • Posted by Ericzipp

    How is it the war hawks of the first decade of the 21st century are now called “advocates”? 1984 is finally here in full. The al-qaeda terrorist are now called “heroes” by the Council of Foreign Relations . While the Hague offers 5 million dollars to the al-qaeda leadership of the FSA because the leaders say if you don’t support us then we will get support from guess who? Your right if you guessed the CFR’s “heroes”

  • Posted by Ann Maes

    I don’t get it; with all the high tech surveillance the US has been using on it’s own citizens, how hard could it be to send in a drone and take out Assad, end of occupation. Or is there some other agenda the US has in mind that we will never know! Our tax dollars at work, for what the tax payers didn’t vote for.
    War never brings peace!

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