More than any of the previous events in the Arab Spring, Syria’s turmoil has presented serious difficulties for Western policymakers. Just as Syria comprises a more complex society than the other Arab countries currently in the throes of political transition, so, too, are its external relations more complex.
As a result, any attempt at decisive military intervention would be not only difficult, but also extremely risky.
Syria’s leading role in Lebanon, even after withdrawing its occupying forces there, is only one complication. Another is Alawite-minority rule in a Sunni-majority country, which makes Syria a proxy for Shiite Iran in the Sunni Arab world. Still other Syrian minority groups — non-Alawite Shiite, Orthodox and Catholic Christians and Druze — are linked to neighboring countries and regional players, inviting intense external interest and even active support. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia all have strategic interests and factional connections to Syria.
The US and its NATO allies would, of course, prefer a democratic, Western-oriented regime to emerge in Syria. However, given the country’s complex society and external ties, the West should happily settle for a stable government not dominated by Russia or Iran, and not in military conflict with its neighbors, including Israel.
So what is the best US and Western policy? A negotiated end to the current warfare could leave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power, albeit with a different face in charge. Such an outcome would be a triumph for the cause of hardline dictatorship, suppression of human rights and also for Iran and Russia. However, it also becomes less feasible as the violence mounts.
That leaves supporting the rebels, but which ones, and how?
Yet another factor militating against intervention is that the distribution of power resulting from the Arab Spring is leaving the US with limited influence and little intelligence. However, the US and the West cannot leave the matter entirely to others or confine their efforts to the UN, where Russia and China prevent any effective action.
So, what should be done? In my view, the US could work with Turkey, Saudi Arabia (taking care not to support Islamic extremists) and its NATO allies, especially France and Britain, to create a prospective successor government for Syria, and to arm its military element. Such a government would have to be representative and coherent. Western powers would need to be sure that their weapons would not fall into potentially unfriendly hands.
The fact that Iran is arming the al-Assad regime calls for countervailing action. Some have suggested a more active military role for the US, beginning with a no-fly zone. It may come to that. However, the French and British, who urged that course in Libya, have made no such proposal for Syria. One reason is that Syria has a substantial air-defense system, which would have to be suppressed by a bombing campaign — causing significant civilian casualties and risking the loss of aircraft and crews.
Before starting down that road, the US should be convinced that military action would not require US ground forces in Syria. It should also be confident (which is impossible now) about the nature of a successor government.
To meet these criteria would require convening interested countries in order to gain greater insight into both the internal Syrian and regional implications of military action. The attention devoted to the Syrian issue during the “non-aligned” countries’ recent Tehran summit was a parody of such an exercise.