05/30/2013 05:08 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Despite Horrific Repression, the U.S. Should Stay Out of Syria

The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left policymakers scrambling in desperation to "do something." This has led to increasing calls for the United States to provide military aid to armed insurgents or even engage in direct military intervention, especially in light of the regime's possible use of chemical weapons.

But unfortunately, there isn't much we can do. With the Ba'ath regime firmly entrenched in Syrian society -- and segments of the Syrian population dependent upon the regime for survival -- even large-scale direct foreign intervention will not likely lead to a quick regime collapse. Intervention could also make the situation dramatically worse.

The initial uprising against the Assad regime was overwhelmingly nonviolent, broad-based, and non-sectarian. Since turning to primarily armed resistance, however, the armed opposition appears to increasingly consist of hardline Salafi Islamists, some affiliated with al Qaeda. Even the "moderate" Free Syrian Army consists of literally hundreds of separate armed militias, some of which are just as extreme.

Proponents of arming the rebels claim the United States could somehow differentiate between "moderates" and "extremists" of the opposition, but this is difficult in practice. Remember that most U.S. arms sent to Afghan rebels in the 1980s ended up in the hands of Hizb-i-Islami, the most hardline of the mujahedeen groups fighting the Soviets and the Afghan regime. Today they are allied with the Taliban, fighting American forces.

Moreover, empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial. Other studies demonstrate that such interventions actually increase the duration, bloodiness, and negative regional consequences of civil wars.

There is also the problem of perceived double standards. For example, while U.S. officials have cited Amnesty International's calls on Russia to stop sending helicopter gunships to Syria, the United States has ignored similar calls by Amnesty International and others to stop sending helicopter gunships to Colombia, Turkey, and Israel, which have also used these weapons to attack civilians.

Until the United States is willing to take a principled stand against all war crimes, regardless of the relationship of the perpetrator with the United States, the Obama administration will have a hard time convincing Syrians that its intentions in supporting the armed opposition are actually humanitarian.

Indeed, the intentions of Western governments are highly suspect in the eyes of many Syrians. U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime, which has extensive experience manipulating Syrians' strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States disingenuously used the "promotion of democracy" and fabricated claims of "weapons of mass destruction" to justify its illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq which, like Syria, happened to oppose Washington's designs on the region.

The United States has also been the primary military, financial, and diplomatic supporter of the government of Israel, which has occupied much of Syria's southwestern Golan province since the 1967 war, ethnically cleansing most of its residents.

Prior to the anti-regime uprising, the United States had been seeking and strategizing for the downfall of the Syrian government. In addition to repeated attacks against Syrian positions in Lebanon in 1983-84, the United States bombed Syria itself as recently as 2008, killing eight civilians. Syrians know this history and, among the large numbers who support neither the regime nor the armed opposition, further U.S. involvement is likely to move them closer to the regime.

Opposing U.S. support for the armed resistance in Syria has nothing to do with indifference, isolationism, or even pacifism. Nor is it indicative of being any less horrified at the suffering of the Syrian people or any less desirous of the overthrow of Assad's brutal regime. With so much at stake, it is critical not to allow the understandably strong emotional reaction to the ongoing carnage lead to policies that could end up making things even worse.

A longer version of this commentary originally appeared at Foreign Policy In Focus.