Despite a growing chorus of demands in the media for greater Western involvement in the ongoing civil war in Syria, the official U.S. response has been appropriately slow and cautious. As the death toll passes 8,000 — most of them civilians and armed rebels — and the city of Homs has fallen to a pro-regime assault, there has been even more clamor and agitation for the U.S. to back the armed opposition. But long gone are the pretensions that intervening in Syria would have anything to do with protecting the civilian population. Now it is justified purely in terms of rolling back Iranian influence and repaying Assad for allowing militants to enter Iraq during the U.S. occupation.
The New York Times' Roger Cohen's argument for arming Syrian rebels is typical: "As the Bosnian war showed, the basis for any settlement must be a rough equality of forces. So I say step up the efforts, already quietly ongoing, to get weapons to the Free Syrian Army…. Payback time has come around: The United States warned Assad about allowing al Qaeda fighters to transit Syria to Iraq. Now matériel and special forces with the ability to train a ragtag army can transit Iraq — and other neighboring states — into Syria."
A new Syrian government may end up being anti-Iranian, but it isn't going to be any less antagonistic to the U.S.
What Cohen and other advocates of this option don't explain is how supplying weapons to a "ragtag army" will ever create an "equality of forces" with one of the largest Arab militaries in the region. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Syria's armed opposition does not threaten the survival of the Assad regime, and providing military aid would be very difficult, practically speaking. Interventionists want the United States to back the side in the Syrian civil war that cannot realistically prevail even after it receives military aid. As for payback, the U.S. could spend the next decade settling scores against governments that took advantage of the disastrous blunder of invading and occupying Iraq, but that would needlessly entangle us even more in the conflicts of the region.
To its credit, the Obama administration has so far taken a more restrained and responsible position. It recently approved communications and humanitarian assistance for the Syrian opposition, but still rules out arming rebel groups or intervening directly with the U.S. military. Whatever the reason for this show of restraint, it is a long overdue acknowledgment that a militarized U.S. response to foreign conflict is not always possible or desirable. Perhaps there is also some recognition that fuelling a nascent sectarian conflict with arms supplies would be the wrong thing for the U.S. to do — as well as being a disaster for Syrian civilians.
The ultimate target of a Syrian intervention? Iran. Advocates of Syrian regime change see some value in toppling Assad, but what they desire more is to deprive Iran of its main regional ally and its conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That seems superficially appealing to many Americans, but like so many strategic justifications for intervention, it does not stand up to much scrutiny.
Sectarian warfare in Syria could indeed hamstring Iran's ability to project power, but it isn't going to end Iran's patronage for Hezbollah. Iran's loss of Syria as an ally would be a significant setback, but it would likely also come at a great cost to the U.S. and friendly governments in the region. Stoking conflict in Syria would destabilize all of Syria's neighbors, three of which are U.S. allies or clients, potentially contributing to new sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon. It could also result in the establishment of a less predictable Syrian regime that is no less hostile to Western interests. It makes little sense to risk the stability and security of those states on the assumption that whatever is bad for Iran must be good for us.
Even if the uprising against Assad were somehow to succeed, Americans should be under no illusions that the emergence of majoritarian Syrian democracy would be a victory for pluralism or liberal values. Each time popular, elected governments have replaced authoritarian regimes in the region in the last decade, the new government has tended to be more sectarian, less secular, and generally worse for religious minorities than the one that preceded it. A more genuinely representative Syrian government may end up being anti-Iranian, but it isn't going to be any less antagonistic to the U.S.