March 6, 2012

Intervening obstacles

The situation in Syria is too volatile to warrant U.S. or coalition intervention.

Over the past several weeks, the violence and unrest that have roiled Syria since the wave of pro-democracy protests—the Arab Spring—arrived about a year ago has acquired a new intensity. Many opponents of President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic regime have responded to the series of brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations by taking up arms; the incipient civil war that has resulted has only added to the uprising’s already gruesome body count (a United Nations official recently estimated that more than 7,500 people have died since it began). It is understandable, then, that many, including Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are now arguing that the international community should supply the rebels with weapons in order to bring the ongoing suffering and the oppressive regime behind it to an end. However, such a move, whether undertaken by the United States or a larger coalition, would likely be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

The most obvious difficulty that any effort to arm the Syrian rebels would face is the lack of an organized group of rebels to receive the weapons. The Syrian National Council, a group of exiled dissidents, has represented the opposition at most of the international summits on the crisis, but it is riven by internal disputes (including a divide between secularists and Islamists) and resented by activists on the ground who think its members are out of touch with the misery of ordinary Syrians. Furthermore, even the Free Syrian Army, the armed rebels’ main organization, is essentially an umbrella group of local militias with few ties to one another.

Because the opposition is so fragmented, any attempt to arm it would likely be a waste of resources and could easily do real harm. A loose network of fighters, without a clear chain of command or political leaders who can set strategic goals, is unlikely to succeed against an organized military even with advanced weaponry; thus, a measure like this would probably just postpone the rebels’ eventual defeat while consuming time and energy that could be invested in other approaches to stopping the violence or used to address more tractable problems. And if the rebels were to win, it is far from obvious that bands of armed men—who belong to rival political factions and are accountable to no one—would be able to replace the Assad regime’s tyranny with a functioning state, let alone a liberal democracy. The fate of Afghanistan, where American-backed warlords with little in the way of shared goals overthrew a dictator in the 1980s and proceeded to plunge their nation into a decades-long civil war, suggests that this worry is worth taking seriously.

Even if we assume that the overthrow of the current Syrian government is a desirable goal, giving those rebels arms could easily reduce their chances of success. Assad’s most effective method of rallying support so far has been claiming that his opponents are tools of a foreign conspiracy; these accusations would only seem more credible if foreign governments actually began giving those opponents weapons. If the weapons come from the nations whose politicians have already expressed support for arming the opposition (the United States and Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar), Syria’s major-power backer, Iran (which is currently contending with the country for supremacy in the Middle East) would likely respond in a way that could turn the Syrian uprising into a proxy war between the two. It seems unlikely that a conflict driven by the geopolitical concerns of foreign powers would do much to satisfy the desire for freedom that motivates many in the opposition.

At this point, a critic might note that I have attacked a proposal for relieving the Syrian people’s suffering without offering one of my own. She might argue that while we would clearly be taking a serious risk by arming the opposition, we must do something to solve the problem, and that the contempt the Assad regime has shown for previous attempts at diplomatic solutions means that supporting the rebels is the only option. However, this notion derives from the appealing but ultimately false assumption that all problems are within our power to solve. Human beings are notoriously resistant, even to the efforts of those who know them best—it would be quite a feat for outsiders to even understand a phenomenon as complex as the Syrian crisis, let alone to solve it. Sometimes the best we can do is to stay out of the way.

Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.