Further Thoughts on the Syria Debate

Yesterday I made a case for backing the authorization of force so measured and even-handed that it was barely a case. Allow me to be a bit clearer. 

Back in February, Vance Serchuk laid out the basic contours of the Syria conflict and the options facing the U.S.

1. The hope has been that the Obama administration can successfully lean on Russia to lean on Bashar al-Assad to accept some kind of negotiated settlement. This is extremely unlikely, as the Russians view U.S.-engineered regime change as a threat to its core strategic interests. Moreover, the Russians (correctly) believe that they only have limited influence over Assad.

2. The idea behind a negotiated settlement is that a unified Syrian opposition will be in a position to broker a deal with what is left Assad regime, thus forestalling a descent into anarchic violence. Instead, the Assad regime is becoming more repressive and radical, and more determined to fight until the bitter end. The unity of the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, has been undermined by the rise of al-Qaeda-linked extremists, who are filling the security vacuum in parts of northern Syria. 

3. If we want to get to a negotiated settlement, we need to give the Assad regime a good reason to come to the negotiating table. Degrading its coercive capabilities from the air would do just that. So would a large-scale effort to upgrade the capabilities of the moderate opposition forces. 

Serchuck has also addressed the increasingly popular argument that we should keep our distance from the Syria conflict, as it will drain Iran of scarce resources. This is, in Serchuk’s view, wishful thinking:

Assad doesn’t need to reconquer all of Syria for the Iranians to emerge successful. Every day that Assad stays in power thanks to Iranian help, Tehran shows that it can prevent the Obama administration from achieving its stated goal — Assad’s ouster — and that Iran, not the United States, is the relevant power in the region.

The world is tightly interconnected. The refugees fleeing their homes in Syria will eventually make their way to the United States — indeed, some number of them already have. An Iran that succeeds in Syria is that much more likely to test the U.S. in its ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons. And there is a real danger that as Syria descends into lawlessness, violence will eventually spill over into neighboring countries, including Turkey and Israel. Intervention is not a panacea. But there are steps the U.S. can take that will increase the likelihood of a negotiated settlement and decrease the likelihood of state collapse in Syria. We ought to take them. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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