If our military experts have consistently underestimated the costs of counterinsurgency warfare—from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq—then they have also quite often overestimated the risks of battling conventional state armies, especially in the Middle East. In both Gulf Wars, Saddam Hussein’s army put up considerably less of a fight than many planners expected. The United States’ contribution to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, a swift and successful endeavor by most accounts, followed dire warnings about the feasibility of intervention from then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself. In all three cases, the regime was regarded by its own people as fundamentally tyrannical and illegitimate, and so its army crumbled from mass defection and desertion.
These considerations ought to frame our perspective on Syria, where all the dynamics mentioned above are again at play. Ajay Ravichandran’s reservations about U.S. intervention in Syria as expressed in an op-ed published in the Maroon, though well-argued, are overly pessimistic and lack some key facts about the conflict.
Ravichandran characterizes the opposition to Syria’s unelected president as “bands of armed men,” comparing them to the mujahideen that resisted the Communist government of Afghanistan in the 1980s and doubting that they could establish a viable democracy in Syria. This comparison is totally illegitimate. The seven main Afghan resistance parties never consolidated into anything resembling a unified political or military front. From the beginning, each group simply reflected the personality of the religious or clan notable who led it. Not one of the main parties had a platform that could be called democratic or secular. The Syrian National Council (SNC) has issued a unified, non-sectarian platform and, unlike the Afghan mujahideen, has rejected the shortsighted idea of collaborating with foreign fighters like Al Qaeda, which is also opposed to the Syrian regime.
Ravichandran is correct to note that the popularity of the SNC has been waning, but he fails to properly identify the reason. To the extent that the SNC has proven “out of touch with the misery of ordinary Syrians,” it is precisely because it has echoed Ravichandran’s skepticism toward international intervention. Syrian dissident Yassin Haj Saleh writes in the Arabic daily Dar al-Hayat: “The Syrian National Council has gained a significant popular legitimacy, but this legitimacy is not guaranteed all the time, and it seems today in decline due to the inability of the SNC to give a positive impression of itself and its work after the conference held in Tunis…” Saleh is referring to the disappointment of many Syrians in the “Friends of Syria” conference held some months ago, where the world refused to provide any concrete promises of assistance, such as a peacekeeping force. Recently, an alternative coalition to the SNC has formed because the SNC has failed to posture itself as a proper government-in-exile or to secure direct, military involvement by foreign powers.
A journalist for Al Jazeera English interviewed a member of this new body:
“You’re asking about weapons…light weapons?”
“But a no-fly zone normally means it has to be enforced. That means bombing.”
The Free Syrian Army is indeed a rather loose affiliation of local brigades, composed mainly of defected soldiers. The brigades are local because they were established to protect their respective cities from the regime’s onslaught and to allow the people to continue to express their opinions freely. When one talks of arming the FSA, it is not to immediately overthrow Assad, but simply to allow Syrians to continue to fight for their lives. As Saleh explained in a separate editorial, “The truth of the matter is that keeping protests peaceful was not feasible in most locations were it not for the ‘Free Syrian Army’ with its military and civilian components to provide relative protection and deterrence against the regime’s striking arms.”
Organizing a cohesive military unit on a municipal level, besieged on all sides by tanks and artillery, is hard enough; to do so on a national level is nearly impossible. According to a Dar al-Hayat interview with Hasn al-Ashtar, a Free Syrian commander north of Homs, the main impediment to national coordination has simply been a lack of the weapons, supplies, and equipment the FSA needs to physically survive. Organization requires the regime to first withdraw from FSA-held areas and give the opposition some breathing room. That, in turn, requires the kind of direct international intervention that Ravichandran rejects.
Ravichandran further claims that U.S. military aid would be counterproductive, as it would give Assad reason to label the revolution another bout of Western-sponsored regime change. This, he says, is “Assad’s most effective method of rallying support so far.” As popular as this argument is, it has an exceptionally thin case; many commentators made similar warnings about intervention in Libya, which turned out to be false alarms. Assad has been pinning the revolution on terrorism and outside intrusion since the beginning of the conflict, yet the opposition does not seem to have let up.
Ravichandran fails to understand that Assad’s support stems not so much from the fear of Syria falling into the hands of the West as from the fear of sectarian rule by the Sunni majority in the country. Since the start of the revolution, his supporters have predominantly been made up of Alawites, Christians, and Kurds, and even then the initial support they had given him has waned. Fear of retribution after an era of minority rule has haunted many democratic transitions, from post-apartheid South Africa to modern Iraq. However, if the fear is rule by a Sunni majority under a democratic system, what is the alternative? Would it not be better to promote democracy in the country while also encouraging governmental unity and fair-mindedness, rather than leave it in the hands of an oppressive ruler?
We do not accept, as Ravichandran does, that there is no better alternative to the status quo. Indeed, we agree (in a rather different context) with one of his parting messages: “Human beings are notoriously resistant.” This is why—against Assad’s tanks, supplied by Russia, funded by China, and abetted by American silence—we know that Syrians will not lose.
Chase Mechanick, Yusef Al-Jarani, Sam Baron, and Apratim Gautam are students in the College and co-founders of the campus group Student Humanitarian Outreach Team (SHOUT).