The continued carnage in Syria is leading more people to call for some sort
of international intervention, ostensibly to protect Syrian rebels from further
attacks by government forces. A prominent example was a New York Times op-ed
last week by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the
State Department, which recommended that the United States and others create
"no-kill zones" on Syrian territory, protected by a coalition of
outside powers. She also wants these outside powers to give the rebel forces
various forms of weaponry, military training, and tactical advice. To avoid the
criticism that her policy would fuel a civil war, Slaughter insists that
support be conditional on the aid being used "defensively," though
Turkish or Arab League units would be free to use drones or unmanned helicopters
"to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill
The core problem with this proposal, as Paul Staniland makes clear in this incisive critique, is that it ignores basic military realities. The rebels are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad; once we commit ourselves to arming and protecting them, how are we going to stop them from doing whatever they can to bring him down? Once engaged on their behalf, is it realistic that any government could cut them off because they had gone beyond our Marquis of Queensbury rules of engagement? Moreover, Slaughter admits that we cannot protect her "no-kill zones" without degrading Assad's forces. In practice, therefore, her neat distinction between "defensive" and "offensive" operations would quickly break down.
In fact, her proposal would lead inexorably to an active military effort to overthrow the Assad regime. As in Libya, what sounds at first like a noble effort to protect civilians would quickly turn into offensive action against a despised regime, and in partnership with a host of opposition forces whose character and competence we can only guess at. If that's what Slaughter and others want to do, they should say so openly, instead of performing what can only be described as a strategic bait-and-switch. China and Russia have figured this ploy out, by the way, which is one reason they've been so reluctant to endorse any international action to stop the killing.
Here's the basic problem. Once we commit ourselves to creating safe havens ("no-kill zones"), we will be obliged to defend them for as long as there is any possibility that Assad's forces might attack. As our experience with the no-fly zones in Iraq teaches, this could involve defending them for years. And if Assad's forces start shelling the rebel areas, then we will have to defend them or risk humiliation. But let's be clear: "defending them" means attacking Assad's own forces. In other words: war. And once that happens, the United States and the other outside powers will face enormous pressures to complete the job.
In fact, it is hard to believe that we could take the step Slaughter is recommending and subsequently agree to leave Assad and his regime in place. As soon as outside powers take sides and intervene, a failure to remove Assad from power would be interpreted as a striking defeat for the intervening powers and a blow to those who have seen the Arab Spring as a hopeful turn for a troubled region.
In short, there is no way to conduct the sort of minimalist, purely defensive, and strictly humanitarian operation that Slaughter describes in her op-ed, without it eventually leading to forcible regime change. And one big reason that Syria's neighbors have been reluctant to go that route is their understandable fear of a protracted internal conflict there that would make the present carnage look mild by comparison.
I take no pleasure from that reality, and I share Slaughter's anger and disgust at what Assad is doing. But the choice we face is stark and agonizing, and pretending that we can keep our balance on this steep and slippery slope is not helpful.
Jason Reed/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.