To Intervene or Not Intervene in Syria? The Limits of Power Define Interests

July 17, 2013

As I discussed last week, defining a state’s interests is a difficult thing to do. The United States has been struggling to define its interests vis-à-vis Syria since the rebellion began there over 2 years ago. Is it in U.S. interest to intervene in Syria? What would be the most effective method of intervention? With events being fluid (that being the nature of events), it seems that the answers to these questions would be fluid as well. And yet the reality of the Syrian conflict consistently prices intervention well outside of its value to the United States.

This reality is horrible for the Syrian people. There are nearly 1.8 million Syrian refugees living in camps in neighboring states with an untold number of internally displaced persons. Conservative estimates put the war’s death toll at over 70,000.  Additionally, the Syrian economy is suffering in ways only states at war can suffer: massive unemployment, inflation, devalued currency, destroyed infrastructure, limited access to goods and markets. All told, Syria’s economy has shrunk 35 percent since the beginning of the war.  It is certainly in the United States’ interest for this suffering to end, for the regime that caused it to fold, and to see the installment of a pluralist and democratically-elected government. The end of atrocities and the spread of democracy and economic stability are always U.S. interests as global stability positively affects our way of life.

But that is not the same thing as saying it is in the United States’ interest to intervene in the Syrian civil war to realize those interests.  Acting towards one’s interests requires that success be feasible and that the requirements for success, otherwise known as costs, not exceed the benefits of the interests or open the actor to undue risk. It is unlikely that the United States could succeed in ending Syrian suffering, removing the Assad regime, and installing a democratic government in its stead. We simply have no viable options that successfully lead to these ends. The limits of our power redefine our interests downward: from affecting a solution to hoping a solution arises from elsewhere.

From the United States’ perspective, the military situation in Syria is a mess.  Syrian government forces remain strong with an estimated 65,000 trained soldiers in the Syrian Army involved in the campaigns against the rebels,* air supremacy, and better equipment than rebel forces (particularly armor and artillery).  These forces face a hodgepodge of jihadist and Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces that are roughly equivalent in strength to Syrian government forces, but lack comparable training and equipment. The United States’ natural ally would be the FSA, even if it has less than a stellar record on human rights.  Now, however, our greatest worry about the FSA is no longer that it climbs into bed with jihadist forces, but rather that the FSA is now fighting both the jihadists and government forces simultaneously. While the United States supports, at least in principle, any organization that fights al Qaeda and its affiliates, this added complexity makes it less likely that the FSA can defeat either of its better equipped and trained adversaries. As such, when looking strictly at the actors directly party to the conflict, prospects for successful U.S. involvement appear bleak.

The future does not look much brighter from a regional or international perspective. Iran and Hezbollah have been funding and equipping pro-regime forces. Iraq has been stuck in the middle, unable to stop Iranian overflights to Damascus, and has seen its own stability threatened by Syria’s war. The Shia-led government there has cracked down on Sunni insurgent groups that have been preparing to join the Sunni rebels next door, while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has voiced his support for the Assad regime (the irony of a Shia prime minister of Iraq voicing support for a Ba’athist dictatorship – even a Shia one – is almost too much to comprehend).  In Syria, Kurdish separatist groups have taken advantage of the chaos for their own goals of independence, complicating Kurdish politics in Iraq and Turkey.  And the last thing Lebanon needed was increased ethnic tensions. These tangled regional dynamics are difficult enough to navigate even before acknowledging that Assad’s regime is to a certain degree a Russian client state and home to the Russian navy’s only warm-water port.

Obviously the situation is complex, but complexity alone is not a sufficient justification to not intervene – most interventions, successful and unsuccessful, are complex. The crux of the intervention debate has to do with linking interests to plausible outcomes. What can we do towards our interests that would actually work?

A no-fly zone should be dismissed immediately. At a conservative $50 million per day, targeting Syrian air capabilities would affect only 10 percent of the war’s casualties. Adding in the risk of losing aircraft and, more importantly, the lives of pilots, this is a miniscule return on investment. Coupled with the fact that a no-fly zone will do practically nothing to bring about a political resolution to the conflict, one wonders why this keeps floating to the top of lists of possible options.

Ground troops in Syria are also out. As a state freshly out of one major war and about to pull out of a second, the United States is in no rush to commit ground troops to a war anywhere. There are numerous practical reasons as well: large-scale ground operations are expensive,  (estimates are that it would cost the U.S. government $1 million per soldier per year deployed); our military departments are resetting themselves in the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan, and sequestration and would have difficulty generating the force size necessary to pacify Syria while maintaining our other global military obligations. This option is really just not up for discussion.

If the United States is unlikely to intervene from the air or on the ground only the indirect method remains. With the recent evidence of the regime’s possible use of chemical weapons, this course of action has been sent into motion, with plans to provide weapons to vetted elements of the FSA. It seems that the United States will provide rudimentary arms, not weapons that could be used against the United States or its allies in the future. Experience and conscience have made us wary of allowing our advanced weapons to fall into the hands of extreme Islamists.

Most likely, the limited provision of weapons to the FSA will be the extent of U.S. intervention. It is also the best course of action to meet our interests in the region. The sad fact is that the United States is unlikely to be able to stop the human suffering resulting from the war, even if we were willing to commit hundreds of thousands of ground troops. We do not have the military or political power or will to make that happen; the costs and risks are entirely too high and the probability of success is too low.  This is a hard reality for Americans on either end of the political spectrum to deal with, but a realistic understanding of the limits of our power is necessary in these types of debates.

Still, all is not lost. Helping to maintain the FSA by providing weapons, and more importantly training on those weapons and other tactics, may not achieve the interest of ending the bloodshed. Indeed, it could prolong the conflict.  But this course of action does meet other U.S. interests.  An operationally effective FSA will embroil both al Qaeda and Iran (and Iran’s proxies, such as Hezbollah) in an expensive ground war (though this tactic comes at the expense of the Syrian people). By committing al Qaeda’s and Iran’s resources and attention to Syria, we render both actors less capable of acting in other areas that challenge us militarily, politically, or economically. Additionally, these activities do not require approval from the United Nations Security Council. Moreover, Russia appears unbothered by them and, as fun as the Cold War was, exasperating U.S.-Russia relations is not in our interest.

This indirect intervention will probably not affect the outcome of the war, at least not by delivering a decisive FSA victory. It may keep the FSA in the fight a longer than it would have otherwise lasted.  This alone is our last realizable interest in Syria for the time being, because we cannot affect any other outcome at a reasonable cost or with a reasonable likelihood of success.  Prolonging the conflict through indirect assistance is not an ideal interest, but then, this is not an ideal situation. At no time would direct intervention be wise, as it would be unlikely to bring about any results that the United States wants. The limits of our power impede our ability to obtain our maximalist goals – peace and democracy – and force us to reevaluate what our interests truly are: limited and indirect involvement in Syria’s civil war.


Jason Fritz is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks.


*Actual Army strength is much higher, but to combat desertions Assad has been limiting his forces in combat to the most loyal third of his forces.


Photo Credit: James Gordon