A Dead-End Pursuit Not Worth Pursuing: Syria and the Question of Intervention

02/27/2013 10:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

The question of intervention in Syria is a hotly debated topic, largely thanks to the insistence of the dominant elements of opposition on its pursuit. Of course, had a regime not answered to peaceful calls for reform with criminal and excessive force nearly two years ago, and unrelentingly ever since, nobody would be counting more than 70,000 killed, 700,000 in refuge and 2 million displaced, or the pros and cons of intervention. By intervention, I am referring to the prospect of outright intervention, such as no-fly zones and air defense, cross-border exercises and/or the deployment of foreign troops. Yet I also understand the situation to be characterized already by other de facto forms of intervention, including the arming and funding of rebels, the provision of technical and "nonlethal" support and the presence of foreign fighters. As opposed to the pursuit of intervention, the most important objectives at this point of the conflict should be to bring an end to the bloodshed and to pursue a negotiated transition toward democracy. A negotiated transition will require a willingness from both sides of the conflict to engage in a political settlement. Neither side has shown genuine efforts toward this end. My focus is on one side -- the opposition -- and its strategic failures in the pursuit of intervention, in addition to the negative trajectory based on path dependence that intervention will lead the country on.

Realism and Strategic Choices

The dominant elements of the opposition have failed in their pursuits related to intervention externally, militarily and internally. On the world stage they have been squandering money, time and political capital on the question of intervention. Their diplomatic energies have been focused on this pursuit in direct conflict with the realities they are facing: They have not secured the external intervention they have spent over a year appealing for. The Obama administration is not choosing intervention. President Obama opposes even the limited forms of intervention supported by some U.S. allies and members of his own administration. In his recent articulation of his views on Syria, he explained, "How do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?" The significance of this statement is in its blunt articulation that the United States will not intervene on humanitarian bases. That's because states act on their interests, not on their emotions, so one must question the interests of the states that are advocating intervention and recognize the distinction between their motives and those of activists and opposition members. Though the opposition and intervening states are both interested in the overthrow of Bashar al-Asad, intervening states are much less interested in the development of a democratic Syria. Rather, they are intent on removing a hindrance in their balance of power against the Iranian regime, and many of them are keen on the emergence of a Sunni-dominated government. They are not in it to quell the humanitarian crisis nor to promote democracy.

Although the U.S. is not choosing intervention, its ambivalence has put off any meaningful political initiatives in its place. Other powers, however, are less ambivalent. It was back in October 2011 that China and Russia vetoed the UNSC resolution that might have opened the door to intervention. As unsavory as their motives might be, the reality is that they are both powers with significant influence in world affairs. For the dominant elements of the opposition to believe that they are righteous enough to ignore world powers (not just China and Russia but even an ambivalent U.S. and a UN advocating a political solution) is to ensure that a new Syrian government enters an international arena with little political capital. The U.S., furthermore, is becoming less ambivalent of late and seems more eager to pursue a political solution. The administration was obviously excited by Moaz al-Khatib's offer of negotiations with the regime and is itself in talks with the Russians and the Iranians. If the U.S. can talk to its rivals, then the opposition can do so as well.

Militarily, the record already shows that political opposition groups do not and will not have control over the distribution of arms and the events in battle. I anticipate the response that if only U.S. intervention and support were increased, then these military activities would be better directed and controlled. However, it seems that the most moderate groups that the U.S. might choose to support do not themselves have robust support on the ground. Furthermore, selective arming is already among the factors dividing the opposition; more selective arming will mean more fissures. If the dominant elements of the opposition want to exhibit their moderation, they should distinguish themselves from the armed and violent regime and the armed and violent extremists by not being armed and violent.

Internally, the dominant elements of the opposition are failing strategically as well. By advocating for foreign intervention, they are forgoing a broad coalition of support across Syrian society. There are two segments of society that the opposition is neglecting to bring into a broad-based coalition because of their focus on intervention: the "silent majority" (or maybe we should call them "silent minorities") and the disunited elements of the opposition, including Kurdish opposition groups, secular regime opponents, minority regime opponents and much of the educated and liberal class. It should not have been hard to unite a society against a regime like Asad's, but the dominant elements of the opposition have failed to do so, in no small part thanks to their narrow focus on foreign intervention.

The Future and Path Dependence

Path dependence is a concept in social science that simply means "history matters." The events and circumstances that occur at a point in time are determinant of the institutions and norms that follow. Path dependence is a critical concept in transition periods.

Foreign intervention in Syria will set the country on a course of path dependence that gives outside powers undue influence in its affairs and severely diminishes its sovereignty and unity. In the best-case scenario, in which foreign intervention "goes well," Asad is overthrown. And then what? Those who have intervened from all sides will vie for their proxies to come into power so as to see the country fall into their preferred regional alignment. If anyone "wins" in this struggle, it will be to the loss of all other groups. (Even if it happens through elections, it would be a more pronounced version of Egypt's current political turmoil, in which one dominant group has managed to malign and marginalize all others).

But foreign intervention is hard-pressed to be surgical in a country with the demographic diversity and population densities of Syria. If further control is lost and anarchy increases, the proliferation of arms and heavy weaponry will create the circumstances in which warlords, extremists and covert foreign interference thrive. We can expect to get used to the sectarian attacks that dog Iraq and Pakistan daily, and to the sounds of drones in Syrian skies. It is not hard to envision these violent struggles, buoyed by easy access to arms, leading to the physical breakup of the country along ethnic and/or sectarian lines. We can also expect to ignite further violence in neighboring countries, with the easy movement of arms across borders. Syria will always struggle to thrive in a region consumed by violence and conflict.

Yet foreign intervention is neither the only nor even the most important factor that will set Syria on a negative course of path dependence. The very way in which this uprising is being conducted -- that is, violently -- is anathema to a peaceful, just and democratic future for all Syrians. The Asad regime came into power and maintained it through the constant threat and occasional use of force. That is why it answered peaceful calls for change with force. To again have another government come into power through force will severely diminish chances of success in democracy and regular peaceful transitions of power. It could potentially make Syria an unwelcome place for its minorities and any segments of society that diverge in their views from the dominant power. Furthermore, it will be nearly impossible to restrict the most extreme jihadi elements for years to come.

After all these years, Syria deserves better. There are many elements of the opposition that are pursuing peaceful and nonviolent means of change and preparing for a transition. They recognize that Syria's problem was a failed political regime and are working toward a better political future and thus are pursuing political solutions to the crisis. The opposition calling for intervention should give up on a failing strategy that portends more violence and bloodshed and get on board for a democratic and just future. After all, that is what I've always understood to be the purpose of the uprising, not merely the overthrow of Bashar al-Asad.

A version of this essay was presented on a panel at the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC, on Feb. 13, 2013.