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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Perils of Intervention in the Syrian Civil War

by Micah Zenko
December 12, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover in Aleppo (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover in Aleppo (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).


The New York Times ran a feature story yesterday that highlights many of the reasons the United States should refrain from intervening in other countries’ civil wars. Based on reporting from Syria and interviews with leaders of opposition groups, the piece can be distilled into two of the more notable analytical statements:

“Much of the rebellion is hostile toward America.”

“Syrians across the political spectrum say the United States allowed more than 40,000 people to die in the 21-month conflict.”

The latest reason that the majority of the armed Syrian opposition hates America is yesterday’s announcement by the State Department that the designated Foreign Terrorist Organization al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) now includes a number of Syrian rebel groups: al-Nusrah Front, Jabhet al-Nusrah, The Victory Front, and Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant. The announcement claims that the aforementioned groups “sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.” This designation is complicated by the fact that some of these groups are also reportedly receiving lethal aid from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and have delivered the most lethal blows to the Assad regime’s security forces.

Yesterday, a journalist asked the State Department spokesperson to explain why the United States made the designation. She replied:

“We are certainly making the broader point… that there may be other groups who don’t have a democratic Syria in mind, who don’t have the best interest of the Syrian people in mind, and one needs to be aware of them….They have a very different agenda, and everybody should beware…We have supported the aspirations of the Syrian people to have a truly pluralistic, unified, democratic state that supports and defends the human rights of all Syrians. These kinds of al-Qaida-affiliated groups have a very, very different vision about how people ought to live, and certainly, there’s nothing democratic about it.”

Earlier that day, in a State Department-arranged press briefing, an unidentified senior Obama administration official stated: “It is important that Syrians who believe in tolerance, Syrians who believe in the respect for the human rights of all Syrian citizens be the ones who move the political transition forward…extremists should not dictate that political transition.”

The United States is not dictating the political transition, but what happens when it tries to exert influence by designating fighters on the ground as terrorists? Reread the New York Times piece, and imagine what level of support or hostility there would be if the United States had provided arms to some groups (but not others), or intervened with military force (against the wishes of some groups)? The United States is both damned when it does, and damned when it does not, largely because it (often) rhetorically and (selectively) practically assumes a role of global leadership. You will notice that Syrian opposition groups do not blame China, India, or Brazil, for example, for doing nothing while their suffering continues.

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  • Posted by anon

    the other reason is that the rebels are incapable of running the country or even the territory they currently occupy

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