Attacking Syria, Realism, and Magical Realism

August 28, 2013

When WOTR wallah Ryan Evans asked me to be a contributor to this blog I readily agreed. One reason is that I have known him for years and like him personally, but the other reason is that I agree with the non-hidebound, non-doctrinal form of realism that he wanted to center this web magazine on. As he put it early on, the realism that drives this blog focuses on “the study of human relations with a focus on power and strategy.” This is refreshing because it lacks pretension and focuses on human agency and its relation to power with strategy as the bridge.

Anyway, since the spring I have been paying much attention to the situation in Syria, thinking about it, and watching the debates. From these debates one would think that any card carrying realist must be against intervening. Otherwise one must be some heretical ideational realist of a neoconservative persuasion. But that oversimplifies things wildly and excessively. One needn’t harbor neoconservative leanings, however defined, to want to do something about the situation on the ground.

Many corners of contemporary realism seem to have a “magical” quality about their prescriptions for dealing with the world. This magical realism, unlike the literary and film genre of the same name, replaces magic elements such as dragons and vampires “in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment” with a reliance upon dogmatic tenets for how the international system operates—or should operate. One example of this is made by those who seem to hope that if only the U.S. can just complete the pivot to Asia then we can get back to the “real” great power, state-based system of international relations. Another example is the rote belief that offshore balancing is the solution to our strategic quandaries. For them, force should be husbanded and our powder should be kept dry even if there are potential security tsunamis over the horizon that might threaten to soak said powder. Inaction and realism should not be synonymous.

To my mind there are at least three “realist” rationales for a U.S. intervention in Syria.

(1)   Breaking rules. Some may scoff at the credibility argument vis-à-vis President Obama’s statements about Syria’s use of chemical weapons and crossing “red lines,” but the more important issue is that Bashar al-Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons against his opposition is not only egregious but it flaunts international conventions. Many realists generally like to dismiss the reliance on, or importance of, norms but once they are established, they matter because other states, and non-state actors, are watching and will base their behaviors on what they see happening, or not happening, to flagrant violators. Great powers make the rules, and while China and Russia may not be happy about enforcing these rules in Syria, not enforcing them will have real costs. North Korea and Iran are watching.

(2)   Don’t let it burn. Edward Luttwak and others think that we can just let Syria burn because if either side wins we lose. The socoiopolitical tinder in Syria’s neighbors, however, is way too susceptible to the risks of the inferno spreading. Fire breaks need to be established and expanded. One method of establishing such obstacles would be the use of limited standoff strikes against targets of importance to the regime, when coupled with intelligence and weapons and training support to the rebels, to help the opposition break the current stalemate. If discriminate force leads to a breakthrough either militarily or politically, it may help to strengthen our position with more moderate wings of the opposition who currently must lean on violent extremists to serve as the shock troops.

(3)   Shaping rather than accepting the sculpturing of others. Letting Syria continue to burn will deepen enmity towards the United States both within the current regime and the opposition. More actively intervening with limited standoff strikes on key regime targets and increasing training, weapons, and intelligence assistance to vetted opposition forces, as possible, will help us to shape the situation on the ground rather than have to deal with the consequences of the fallout that the situation will produce no matter which side prevails. The foreign fighter veterans that this war is producing will be much more dangerous, capable, and numerous than the veterans produced in Afghanistan and Iraq. That will have an impact on international security writ large, both across the region and beyond.  Real realism doesn’t tell the state to be passive and hands-off every time it is confronted with a complex problem beyond its borders.

(Readers are also urged to check out the realistic options laid out by Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr. over at The National Interest.)

The above having been said, none of this means that things will be easy or neat and the U.S. must avoid getting sucked in further than it wants or can afford. I am simply arguing against being too pessimistic about what can and cannot be done about the situation–just as fellow WOTRer Jason Fritz warned about pessimism here.


Michael P. Noonan is a contributor at War on the Rocks. He is the director of the national security program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.