As the Syrian government makes increasingly desperate and vicious efforts to keep power, pleas for military intervention, more or less on the Libyan model, have become more insistent. This course is morally attractive, to be sure. But should Western states follow this counsel? I believe not.
Those calls to action fall into three main categories: a Sunni Muslim concern for co-religionists, a universal humanitarian concern to stop torture and murder, and a geopolitical worry about the impact of the ongoing conflict. The first two motives can be fairly easily dispatched. If Sunni governments — notably those of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — choose to intervene on behalf of fellow Sunnis against Alawis, that is their prerogative, but Western states have no dog in this fight.
Generalized humanitarian concerns face problems of veracity, feasibility, and consequence. Anti-regime insurgents, who are gaining on the battlefield, appear responsible for at least some atrocities. Western electorates may not accept the cost in blood and treasure required for humanitarian intervention. It must succeed quickly, say within a year. The successor government may (as in the Libyan case) turn out even worse than the existing totalitarianism. Together, these factors argue compellingly against humanitarian intervention.
Foreign-policy interests should take precedence, because Westerners are not so strong and safe that they can look at Syria only out of concern for Syrians; rather, they must view the country strategically, putting a priority on their own security.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy has helpfully summarized in The New Republic reasons why a Syrian civil war poses dangers to U.S. interests: The Assad regime could lose control of its chemical and biological arsenal; the regime could renew the PKK insurgency against Ankara; it could regionalize the conflict by pushing its Palestinian population across the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Israeli borders; and it could fight the Sunnis of Lebanon, reigniting the Lebanese civil war. Sunni jihadi warriors, in response, could turn Syria into the global nexus of violent Islamist terrorism — one bordering NATO and Israel. Finally, Satloff worries that a protracted conflict gives Islamists greater opportunities than does one that ends quickly.
To which I reply: Yes, the WMDs could go rogue, but I worry more about their ending up in the hands of an Islamist successor government. A renewed PKK insurgency against the hostile government ruling Turkey, or increased Sunni-Alevi tensionsin that country, hardly rank as major Western concerns. Expelling Palestinians would barely destabilize Jordan or Israel. Lebanon is already a balkanized mess; and, as opposed to the 1976–91 period, internal fighting underway there currently affects Western interests only marginally. The global jihad effort has limited resources; the location may be less than ideal, but what could be better than for it to fight the Pasdaran (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps) to the death in Syria?