Ever since reaching an agreement to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons, the international community has largely turned its back on a civil war that has yet to show any sign of amelioration. Hundreds of thousands have been killed or displaced by a regime whose brutality is perhaps only matched by the world’s indifference and, frankly, impotence. In Syria and elsewhere, the United States has turned its back on a recent legacy of successful and limited interventions – even while it could, and should, do so much more.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, American foreign policy has been defined by stints of overconfident overreach followed by periods of naïve and counterproductive isolationism. Following a disastrous – if reasonably founded – intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration subsequently shied away from stopping genocide in Rwanda or acting decisively to head off the burgeoning threat of Islamist terrorism. Stricken by the human and financial costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration looks set to head down the same road.
The human cost, meanwhile, of the ongoing conflict in Syria has been simply catastrophic. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed – according to a rather conservative estimate – while a further two million have fled from Syria to neighboring countries. Even after the formulation of an agreement to destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, the situation on the ground will likely only continue to deteriorate.
Mounting an effective intervention in Syria would be complicated at the best of times, given the country’s pronounced sectarian divide. Intervening at this point in the conflict, when the Obama administration’s failure to support moderate opposition to Assad has driven the emergence of a radically more fundamentalist and anti-American set of rebels, is even more complex, given the risk of inadvertently arming those who would – in an echo of the mujahedeen’s struggle in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union – later seek to do the United States harm with American-supplied weapons.
Even so, the smallest steps – such as the creation of a no-fly zone, the selective provision of technical assistance to moderate rebel forces, and the use of diplomatic and economic pressure to distance Assad from external backers like Russia – may have a significant effect. As shown by interventions from Kosovo to Libya, Western nations can exert remarkable pressure towards restoring order while assuming little to no risk. Syria should be no different.
Moreover, the broader implications of failing to advance – even in a limited way – basic principles through some form of intervention or assistance to the rebels is striking. The international community has become all too accustomed to “norms,” boundaries within which nation-states can acceptably conduct their business, and to an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity (at least on a global scale).
That stability is directly contingent on leading powers – and, to the exclusion of China, leading powers that both espouse and adhere to basic standards regarding human rights and liberal principles – standing up for those norms, and rectifying breaches when they take place. Failing to do so in Syria, given the steadily rising human cost, is at best morally negligent and at worse directly detrimental to the established international order – if the United States is unwilling to assume that burden, no other acceptable alternative is in sight.
Of course, an interventionist foreign policy runs the risk of “mission creep,” as Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate all too well. The United States doesn’t “nation-build” all that well unilaterally — but does when approaching the issue with the assistance of international partners and organizations like the UN – and the cost of those two recent interventions is all too well-documented.
Even so, doing nothing in Syria – to write off a brutalized people, and to relinquish any sort of moral authority the United States may retain on such issues – is simply not an option. Quite simply, the international community – and the United States in particular – needs to step up.
Contact Marshall Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org