What to Do about Syria?
From the June 25, 2012, issue of NR

A poster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, January 2012 (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty)


John R. Bolton

As hostilities in Syria roll on unabated, the civilian casualties rise because of combat operations in urban areas and execution-style killings. In response, calls for U.S. military intervention of one sort or another to aid the opposition increase, while the Obama administration dithers over whether to continue relying on the United Nations Security Council and former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.

But what are the American interests at stake, and what is the best way to protect them? Although it is easy to concentrate on the stomach-churning television images, we should operate on the basis of strategy, not emotion. That does not mean doing nothing. But neither does it mean knee-jerk reactions instead of careful analysis.

Syria’s Assad family–Baath party dictatorship had nothing to recommend it before the current conflict, other than its being the devil we knew. Now, it is increasingly an Iranian satellite under Tehran’s growing regional influence. Syria remains a threat to Israel; has continuing aspirations to control Lebanon while serving as a conduit to supply and support the terrorist group Hezbollah; provides a base of operations for Russian military activity in the Middle East; and is quite possibly the site of ongoing, illicit nuclear-weapons activity by Iran and North Korea, despite Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007.

Accordingly, regime change in Syria is prima facie in America’s interest as well as the interests of Israel and our Arab friends in the region, who see nothing but danger for themselves if Iran’s hegemonic ambitions unfold successfully. Why Republicans and Democrats alike have coddled Syria’s tyrants over the years is extraordinarily difficult to understand. Of course, as with overthrowing Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, there is the question of what will replace a concededly distasteful regime. And today, that uncertainty is a major factor constraining our options for dealing with Syria’s conflict.

It would have been one thing to work with the Syrian diaspora to remove Assad and the Baath party when we had a massive military presence in Iraq, right on Syria’s border. In the days just after Saddam’s ouster in 2003, conditions were optimal (if nonetheless imperfect) for overthrowing Assad and replacing his regime with something compatible with American interests. We would not have needed to use U.S. ground forces. Our mere presence in Iraq could have precluded Iran — or, what we see today, an Iraq under Iran’s influence — from trying to protect Assad.

That possibility is now much more remote, given the widespread infiltration of the anti-Assad forces by al-Qaeda and other terrorists. In truth, we do not know enough about the opposition’s political or military leadership (which currently, at least, appears confused and divided) to predict who would prevail in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s overthrow. In such circumstances, the risk of a radical Islamist regime’s replacing Assad is considerably higher than it would have been if we had moved to oust him years ago. A relatively orderly exit by Assad is one thing. A disorderly, indeed chaotic exit is quite another, especially given the risk that Syria’s chemical- and biological-weapons assets, and possibly nuclear assets, might fall into hands even worse than Assad’s.

There is one other important consideration. Assad and his father routinely butchered their Sunni political opponents to protect their political base in the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. If the civilians whose bodies we have seen recently on television were the victims of Alawite militias or Syrian government forces, it is, sadly, more of the same. There is little doubt that the Sunni desire for revenge is strong. After years of oppression and brutality, how could it not be? Accordingly, we are blinking at reality if we do not recognize that, following Assad’s ouster, especially if the violence grew, the bloodlust would be high and the risk of large-scale massacres of Alawites all too real. How would we feel if U.S. weapons were used in such massacres? Without a substantial on-the-ground troop presence, we could no more prevent them than we can prevent the current killings of civilians.

Advocates of U.S. intervention argue that, if we are unwilling to supply weapons to the opposition, we can at least declare a no-fly zone along the Turkish border and continue to supply non-lethal assistance. This less visible approach implicitly acknowledges that Arab states determined to prevent Iran from consolidating its hold over Syria are now arming the rebels and will continue to do so. Of course, they will arm factions they believe are congenial to their interests, and not necessarily those congenial to ours, a fact we can do little to change. Indeed, any level of U.S. support, if it turns out to be effective, implies the same potential political and humanitarian problems as does U.S. support that is truly robust. The more effective our aid is, the more likely the opposition is to prevail. The issue is whether we want that to happen when we have so little understanding of, let alone influence over, what a successor regime would be like.

Assad remains in power because of Russia and Iran, with China supporting him in the background. Russia has been providing arms, economic and financial assistance, and full political backing to the Syrian government. Iran has done the same and more. According to credible reports, officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are aiding Syrian-government forces and even directing them in combat. While China has no significant direct stake in Assad’s future, it does have a stake in staying close to Russia, in hopes that Moscow will support Beijing on issues where China’s interests are much stronger, such as North Korea and, potentially, China’s assertive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. On June 1, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to condemn the violence against Syria’s civilians, and only three countries voted no: Russia, China, and Cuba.

Both Russia and Iran are prepared to shed a lot of Syrian blood, civilian or otherwise, to keep Assad in power, because it is in their interests, as they perceive them, to do so. And neither Moscow nor Tehran is much swayed by emotional arguments or by that perennial bugaboo for Western diplomats: “isolation” from the international community. Consider the expulsion of Syrian diplomats from Western capitals at the end of May. Does anyone seriously think Assad will change course because his diplomats now have to return to Damascus? Do any of us doubt that the Europeans (and Obama) will quietly welcome those Syrian diplomats back in due course if Assad prevails?