02/11/2013 03:28 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

In Syria, Don't 'Give War A Chance'

News that the White House nixed a plan last summer to arm the Syrian rebels was attributed to election-year politics. But maybe the administration's decision not to intervene was motivated by other impulses. On one hand, there is concern that the conflict in Syria could spill across its borders and export sectarian violence to neighbors like Jordan or Lebanon. On the other, there are those that might like to see a bludgeoned and weaker Syria emerge from the wreckage.

A weakened Syria, this theory goes, would mean less ability of Syria to carry out political assassinations in Lebanon, act as a conduit for arms for Hezbollah or home of groups like Hamas, and serve as an ally to Iran. War is bad, but there are undoubtedly some voices in Israel and the United States, among other places (like Turkey or Saudi Arabia), that might like to "give war a chance." Or at least allow for a bit more bloodletting, the better to weaken Iran's position in the region and prevent a postwar Syria - regardless of whether the rebels or regime emerges victorious - from continuing its prewar policies of being an exporter of instability. As Yitzhak Laor wrote last summer in Haaretz, "That's why the United States is in no hurry to intervene ... It's looking for an effective dictatorship. Not another 'Iraqi democracy.' Meanwhile, let them bleed."

In terms of the scale of bloodshed, Syria obviously does not compare to wartime Europe. But similar dynamics played out among some powers in the early 1940s that preferred to see Germany and the USSR bleed themselves to death, before intervening to end the war. Harry Truman, before he was president, proclaimed in 1941 that "if we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible." Similarly, after Lenin pulled Russia out of World War I, he said "In concluding a separate peace now, we rid ourselves...of both imperialistic groups fighting each other."

The phrase "give war a chance," of course, is a loaded one whose Balkans origins in the 1990s describe the interference of international peacekeepers to impose a settlement to temporarily staunch the bloodshed, but with the unintended consequence of allowing the warring parties to rearm and thus live to fight another day. Such an imposed peace does two things: It prevents the war from playing itself out to see a clear victor emerge; and it unwillingly extends the war by buying time for the belligerents to rest and rearm themselves. Andrew Tabler and Bilal Saab, writing in Foreign Affairs, have resurrected this phrase by suggesting that a decisive rebel victory should prevail over a negotiated settlement.

But that could last years, as the war ledger in Syria is unlikely to tip in the rebels' favor barring greater international support. Outside of Ankara, there has been little clamoring for a military intervention, much less a more limited show of force, such as a Libya-style no-fly zone. Which is perplexing, given France's recent successful, if limited, military intervention in Mali and NATO's success in Libya at ridding the world of Qaddafi. Obviously both interventions were far from perfect (let's not rehash Benghazi here). But one has to assume that powerful forces are blocking Western intervention in Syria, using the convenient straw-man argument that the Russians and Chinese are blocking any meaningful action in the UN Security Council (especially since such objections did not prevent NATO from intervening in Kosovo in May 1999). One has to conclude that there are privately held views that Syria should get the wrecking-ball treatment as a way of shifting the regional balance of power in favor of the United States and Israel and against Iran. Call it the St. Augustine strategy: Lord, make Syria peaceful, but not yet.

Of course, much in the region still remains in flux. For instance, it is unclear which side of the power ledger Iraq or Egypt falls, given that both are improving ties with Tehran. Would a Sunni-dominated Syria remain an ally of Iran or Hezbollah? Would it seek closer ties with Iraq? Also, what would Syrian-Israeli relations resemble, given Israel's recent alleged bombing of a research facility outside of Damascus? Finally, up until the war began in March 2011, Syria's relations with the US had been warming. Is Washington privately seeking a weakened Syria, regardless of who wins the war, in the hopes of keeping Syria out of Lebanon and denying Iran its most important ally in the region?

Nobody knows. The trouble with any kind of bloodletting policy is threefold: First, it is a form of collective punishment strategy, since the bulk of the victims are Syrian civilians, many of whom never favored the Assad's killing of Lebanese politicians or partnering with Iran. Most Syrians I've met in my past visits seek warmer relations with the West, are suspicious of Iran, and do not wake up in the morning wishing Israel off the map or murmuring "Death to America." Second, this kind of strategy could easily backfire, as it will only create resentment among those Syrians in the crosshairs of this war who we should be protecting, push them into the hands of Islamist, and needlessly radicalize them to be distrustful of us (and at worst, hate us). Third, as Thucydides warned, the longer a war drags on, the greater the chances for accidents or improbable events to occur. A devastated Syria might weaken Iran's position in the Middle East in the near term, but the longer-term consequences could make the Syrian civil war a seminal event by virtue of its duration. Just as the long civil war after the fall of Saddam in 2003 ignited Shiite and Sunni tensions beyond Iraq's borders, a similar dynamic and cycle of revenge killings could (and already is, to some degree) erupt in the region, the longer the war drags on.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the actual motivation of outside powers is that Syria, unlike Mali or Libya, is too messy a place to intervene on the cheap. Maybe there is a real sense that for a postwar government to have any legitimacy, the Syrian rebels should "own" the outcome and win the war themselves, rather than allow some English-speaking Syrian Chalabi-type being installed by the West. Maybe the Venn diagram of idealists and realists in Washington overlap on Syria - the latter not viewing the war as a vital security concern, while the former sees an intervention as having imperial overtones.

Beyond its obvious normative implications, such a strategy of letting the war play out to its end will invariably produce a bad outcome beyond our control, a postwar Syria of resentful citizens and ruined cities, and a regional dynamic that may or may not favor the balance of power in our favor. Nor is it clear that a weakened Syria, particularly if Assad remains in power, might not seek to intervene in places like Lebanon even more to settle old scores or distract Syrians from their postwar woes.

Hence, an 11th-hour intervention by the West after years of bloodletting will backfire. We should seek to end the war immediately, not after Syria is reduced to ruin, even if there is no clear victor.