Two Perspectives: Syria and the Neoconservative Case for Doing Nothing
Editor's Note: This is one of two articles by David Hervey on U.S. intervention in Syria, the other being "Two Perspectives: The Case for a No-Fly Zone in Syria."
By David Hervey
One of the most common reasons given by American foreign policy hawks for intervening in Syria is that such an intervention would curb Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. It is Vladimir Putin and the Iranian Ayatollahs, their argument goes, who support Bashar Assad’s repressive Syrian government, so they have the most to lose from his demise. This part of their argument is sound. But the interventionists stretch their argument too far when they argue that a no-fly zone or material support for Syrian rebels and a quick downfall for the Assad regime would be the most efficient way to counter Russian and Iranian expansion. The most efficient course of action that the United States can take in Syria is the simplest one -- doing nothing.
A recent editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz argued something to this effect, but assumed that Assad would win if there were no US intervention. On the contrary, despite his fierce resistance to rebel advances in Western Syria, there is little chance that Assad will ever regain control of the whole country. The best he can hope for is a continued stalemate in which he rules pockets primarily in the west of the country. This is because Assad’s government has already reached the point at which rebel forces can fight it on the battlefield, and the rebels can win. This means that there is little hope for Assad’s government – it is no longer stronger than the rebel forces. According to Che Guevara’s influential book on Guerilla Warfare, once revolutionaries reach the point that they can directly challenge an incumbent government, they have successfully created the necessary conditions for revolution, and their victory is all but assured. Guevara’s prognosis may have been overly optimistic for rebel groups, as a result of his success in Cuba and the influence of Marx’s thesis that world Communist revolution was inevitable, but there is good reason to agree that Assad’s Syria will inevitably fall. Despite the likely eventual success for Assad’s forces in Aleppo on account of overwhelming Russian and Syrian airpower concentrated there, the rebellion shows no signs of stopping. Indeed, rebels in the north of the country have made significant gains against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and will make more as IS continues to lose territory in Iraq. These gains will allow them to devote more resources to fighting the already-stretched Syrian army. The hardest thing for the rebels to do will be to win support among Syria’s many ethnic and religious minorities, who fear Sunni Arab domination of any post-Assad order. The surest way to do this will be to rule the areas they conquer from IS in a tolerant way. On account of the role that Syria’s Kurdish and Turkmen minorities have had in the fight against Assad, there is a good chance that they will govern in a way that is inclusive to other minority groups.
Given that even if the United States does nothing, Assad will fall, why would it be preferable to do nothing rather than to hasten his regime’s end? To answer this question requires looking at the big picture, rather than just Syria. The Assad regime is backed strongly by Iran and Russia, as is constantly pointed out by those who advocate intervention in Syria. While more money has been flowing into Iran since the recent nuclear deal lifted many of the economic sanctions imposed on the country, the Iranian government still has limited resources. Iran has specifically supported the Syrian army with combat troops from its Revolutionary Guard Corps, and hundreds of these soldiers have died in Syria. This is a huge drain of resources on the Iranian military. As noted in the magazine Foreign Policy, each soldier represents a tremendous investment of human capital. They have been trained for years and are costly to equip, house, and provision in Syria— especially because there is no direct land route between Iran and Syria without crossing territory controlled by states or groups hostile to Iran. Every soldier, weapon, and supply coming from Iran must be transported by air or covertly smuggled -- both costly propositions. Even more importantly, devoting Iranian lives to what will eventually become known to be a lost cause will not be popular in Iran. There have been periodic demonstrations against theocratic rule in Iran, and a futile war in Syria will give the opposition another grievance to protest. This will be especially noticeable if Iran reacts to a deteriorating position for Assad’s forces by sending more “military advisers” to Syria -- in fact, the Iranian government has already been increasing its support for Assad.
The situation is similar for Russia. Every plane, soldier, or ruble that Vladimir Putin sends to Syria is one that he cannot use to support the rebels in Eastern Ukraine or to threaten the Baltic states. The war in Syria will become just as much of a drain on Russia as it will on Iran, and for largely the same reasons. There is an excellent precedent for this in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. Despite relatively small US support for the Afghan Mujahideen who were fighting the Soviet Army, these rebels dragged the USSR into a protracted conflict that became a huge drain on Soviet military resources and probably contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. A protracted war in Syria, especially as it becomes clear that Assad will lose, can only damage Putin’s legitimacy, bring down his famously high popularity, and bring Russia closer to democracy. Furthermore, Russian meddling in the Middle East creates grievances for Russia’s Chechen Muslims. According to an estimate by the Russian Foreign Ministry quoted in the Independent, over 2,500 Russians have gone to Syria to fight for IS. This would mean that Russians outnumber most other nationalities amongst IS foreign fighters, at a proportion of more than one in ten if US estimates of the total number of foreign fighters are correct. In fact, there are so many that a UN report on foreign fighters for IS identified Russia as being at particular risk of future terrorist activity as foreign fighters return home. Continued Russian involvement uniquely leverages the threat of IS-inspired terrorism and repatriated foreign fighters as a continuing drain on the Russian state security apparatus. Counter-terrorism is expensive, and guarding against attacks by repatriated fighters will require resources that the Russian government does not have, especially if its revenue continues to be constrained by low oil prices.
Yes, the United States could probably help remove Assad militarily, but this would squander a unique opportunity to counter the power-projection efforts of Russia and Iran. Assad will fall on his own, and America should let him. After this happens, we should make every effort to help groups within Syria build a working state, but until then, Syria is a pitfall for Russia and Iran that is useful to American foreign policy goals. Everyone can agree that Assad’s continued repression of opposition, use of chemical weapons, and bombing of civilians are morally reprehensible, but just because he is morally reprehensible does not mean that the US should work to hasten his overthrow. As long as Assad and his regime consume Russian and Iranian resources that could be used against US interests in other regions, Assad’s regime is useful to the United States. While Assad is useful in this way, doing nothing is the best course of action for the United States in Syria.