It has been a year and a half since the uprising in Syria began and ultimately turned into a civil war. The Assad regime and the opposition rebels are locked into a stalemate that shows no signs of ending. Iran and Hezbollah are supporting Syria, while U.S. allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are backing the opposition. The U.S. has been criticized for being too aggressive in supporting the rebels by Russia and China, while some allies say the U.S. has not been proactive enough. Given the uncertainty about the composition of the rebellion and the stakes involved, the U.S. is doing the right thing by not intervening militarily.
It would be very tempting for the U.S. to get involved in Syria. They would have an opportunity to topple the Assad regime that has been a destabilizing force in the region. While former leader Hafez al-Assad maintained some distance from Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad has actively provided arms and facilitated the transfer of Iranian weapons to the group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Additionally, the Assad regime has shown no interest in pursuing peace with Israel; instead it has attempted to produce nuclear weapons and has developed an arsenal of chemical weapons. The regime has been ruthless in its use of force in attempting to crush the rebellion and has caused the deaths of countless civilians. Key U.S. allies in the region are actively supporting the rebellion, which would give the U.S. diplomatic cover in the Arab world, a factor that would be critical prior to any U.S. involvement.
While the role of U.S. allies could make it politically and diplomatically easier for the U.S. to get involved, it should also give pause. The Sunni-led Gulf states and Saudi Arabia see Syria as a proxy battlefield for the ongoing conflict with Iran. The Assad regime is predominately Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and has close ties to Iran. The Gulf states see removing the Assad regime as weakening Iranian influence and as a chance to win a battle in the ongoing fight for influence between Shiite Iran and the Sunni monarchies. A sectarian conflict could make an already-brutal conflict a bloodbath with ethnic cleansing and more massacres.
Additionally, the interests of the Sunni states and the U.S. do not necessarily align. Saudi and Qatari intelligence have been backing Sunni rebel groups and have few concerns about Islamic extremists assuming power in Syria. Foreign jihadists have joined the fight, and groups such as al Qaeda and Hamas have voiced support for the rebellion. This is contrary to the primary concern of the U.S., which is to ensure that that fundamentalists do not take power. At this point does the U.S. know enough about the opposition to verify who is in charge? Since the answer is not an unequivocal yes, the U.S. should stand back.
Some critics of U.S. policy compare the Syrian civil war to Libya, in which NATO forces did intervene. There are numerous differences in the two conflicts that make intervention in Syria a less viable alternative. Libya is a country of 5.7 million people that is geographically and politically isolated from the Middle East. Qaddafi had few friends in the Arab world, whereas Syria is Iran’s key ally in the region. Syria is a country of 22.5 million people that is strategically located. Syria’s relationship with Israel also plays a role in U.S. thinking–the US would need to be certain that what followed the Assad regime would not be worse for Israeli security. Syria’s civil war has begun to spread and involve neighboring countries. Turkey has responded to Syrian shelling with several days of artillery barrages, and the Turkish Parliament has given approval for a military response.
The conflict in Syria shows no signs of ending. The humanitarian implications are serious, as tens of thousands have died and many more Syrians have fled their homes. These factors alone, while extremely distressing, do not comprise a reason for the U.S. to intervene. Thousands of years of history and religious rivalry make this conflict part of a larger struggle for power in the Middle East, one that the U.S. does not fully understand. The U.S. has been involved in two land wars in the Middle East, and the American public has little appetite for a third, especially one where the objectives would be unclear and an exit strategy would be difficult to find. The only compelling case for intervention would be to prevent Syrian chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands. Otherwise, given the multiple forces at play and the complex nature of this conflict, the best thing the U.S. can do is stay out of the war and pursue its objectives from behind the scenes.
Vineet Daga is a Business Development Manager in the aerospace industry. He has a BA and MA in international affairs from The George Washington University.