What should we do about Syria? By "we," I don't mean just the United States. Rather, I mean that wonderfully ambivalent phrase the "international community," and especially those states with a clear stake in the outcome (i.e., Syria's immediate neighbors, its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian allies, and its various adversaries, including the United States).
Reading two pieces that appeared today helps clarify the basic dilemma. The first piece, by economist Paul Collier of Oxford, argues that the Assad regime is living on borrowed time, having "crossed a red line" of international acceptance. He advocates ramping up the pressure by arming the opposition forces, in order to encourage Syrian army leaders and other Baath officials to defect. (The piece is in the Financial Times, and is firewalled on their site).
A second piece by Asli Bali of UCLA and Aziz Rana of Cornell, warns of the perils of this approach. While highly critical of Assad, they emphasize the danger of prolonged civil war and point out that a significant number of Syrians still worry as much about internal instability and sectarian violence as they do about Assad's brutalities. Accordingly, Bani and Rana favor an inclusive diplomatic process that avoids isolating Assad completely, in order to head off a destructive civil war.
One could make a crude realist case for Collier's approach, if you believed that the strategic benefits of ousting Assad were worth the human costs to Syrian civilians. One might argue that toppling Assad would eliminate a key Iranian ally and deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah, thereby advancing broader U.S. interests in the region. In this optimistic scenario, grateful Syrians would seek friendly relations with their Western benefactors, including Washington. Notice that this view assumes that the transition is swift, that few civilians die in the fighting, and that forming a new government is fairly easy.
But a sophisticated realist would be skeptical of a grand scheme like this. Realists understand that force is a crude instrument that usually generates lots of unintended consequences, and trying to exploit the Syrian crisis to shape the regional balance of power could backfire in all sorts of unpredictable ways. If one gives Assad & co. no choice but to fight to the end, we're likely to get a protracted civil conflict. Some officers may defect, but plenty of others won't and will do whatever it takes to try to hold on. In these circumstances, groups and individuals who are adept at using violence tend to come to the fore, and politics inside Syria will tend toward the extreme.
Nor should we assume that a post-Assad Syria will be a compliant client state governed by pro-Western elites who are grateful for our help. The Syrian opposition may despise Assad -- and with good reason -- but it is hardly unified. Moreover, a post-Assad government will still have security concerns and interests to pursue (such as the return of the Golan Heights). Our experiences with Iraq and Libya also belie Collier's blithe assumption that reconstituting a new Syrian government will be easy. The composition of a post-Assad state in Syria is anyone's guess, but there are plenty of contenders for power who are wary of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A post-Assad Syria would still be buffeted by its neighbors and other interested parties, especially if outsider powers are supporting different factions. And the greater the level of force needed to topple him, the harder it will be to put Syria back together afterward.
And as Bali and Rana emphasize, even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention can have the unintended consequence of putting more Syrian lives at risk. Thus, for both strategic and moral reasons, the international community should concentrate on stopping what is now a slowly escalating civil war, instead of trying to escalate it. This may not be a morally heroic stance, but it is realistic.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.