Syria is breaking apart. Bashar al-Assad is destined to fall. The Russians are reluctant to act. The UN has proved powerless. The U.S. is tired of war.
The truisms of yesterday remain the realities of today as the civil war in Syria rages on, with the U.S. and much of the international community stuck in the familiar position of being confident of the inevitable end-state yet uncertain and concerned about the pathway to get there. Roger Cohen, in a New York Times op-ed, aptly describes the need to break away from this mindset, expedite the fall of embattled Assad, and make possible the entrance of a Syrian-led, internationally- supported political settlement that helps resolve one of longest-running Arab Spring rebellions once and for all.
One of Cohen’s arguments — often overlooked — is the opportunity for the U.S. in addressing the Syrian crisis, and to rebuff Iran and gain critical strategic leverage in negotiations with Tehran over its controversial nuclear program. Serving as the supply link between Lebanon-based Shi'ite group Hezbollah and its main financial and spiritual backers in the Islamic Republic, Syria was for years a critical component in Iran’s geopolitical levers of power in the region. The loss of the fellow-Shi'ite Assad regime would be a huge blow to the extension of Iranian strategic depth into the Arab world. Ensuring the fall of Assad, at a time when economic sanctions are building the pressure against the regime in Tehran and badly damaging its economic well-being, would not only address a worsening political situation, but it would allay Israeli fears.
Beyond the implications for Iran, Cohen notes that military force can only be used as an instrument to hasten the arrival of a political process. But while decisive action in this regard is both needed and would be strategically effective in addressing the broader geopolitical challenges, the complications of multilateral armed action present a number of concerns. Firstly, entry into the conflict threatens the escalation of a potential prolonged proxy war between Gulf states and the West on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah siding with Assad on the other. Recognizing the consequences of a complete collapse of their Syrian link, the Iranians might instead choose to step up their engagement and operational involvement in the conflict. This possibility would threaten not only an escalation of conflict intro a broader war, but would also have unforeseen consequences on the nuclear program that might mitigate any potential beneficial strategic leverage the West would gain from removing Assad from Iran’s sphere of influence.
Secondly, the presence of Syria’s large chemical weapons stockpiles, one of the largest in the Middle East, amplifies to a great extent the danger of political disintegration in a post-Assad Syrian power structure. The fragmentation and lack of organizational unity among the rebels, including and especially between ethnic communities such as the Syrian Kurds in the north and the largely Sunni rebels in the south, make continued conflict even after Assad falls possible and probable. The question regarding who controls the chemical weapons after the regime falls is sure to loom prominently in Western policymaking circles when intervention is brought up, but no serious thinking or public debate has adequately addressing this element of the intervention puzzle.
Syria is, of course, very different than Libya. It is interconnected in the region in a way that Libya, somewhat isolated in North Africa from the heart of the geopolitical mess that is the Levant. And its military capabilities far surpass that of Moammar Gaddafi’s armed forces. An allied military intervention in Syria would be more intensive, more costly, and carry more risks and potential long-term complications that the international community — even with Arab League support — just did not see in Libya.
That said, the point in the conflict where inaction is more costly than action is fast approaching. As the UN Special Envoy, elder Algerian statesman Lakhdar Brahimi, stated, the civil war, if unaddressed in some decisive manner, will undoubtedly “destroy Syria completely and destroy also the nation of Syria.”
The ramifications, on the scale of Somalia-style nation failure, would be calamitous for the world. Indeed, we must act — with the support of neighboring states and as part of a coalition — to address a conflict that will only get worse.