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?
Significantly, U.S. intervention could not be confined to Syria and would inevitably entail confronting Iran and possibly Russia. This the Obama administration is unwilling to do, although it should.
In the case of Russia, such a confrontation would likely break the famous “reset” button beyond repair. As a president waiting for reelection so he can be more “flexible” toward Moscow, Obama is simply incapable of contemplating this step.
In the case of Iran, U.S. military assistance to Syrian rebels would almost certainly end any prospect of further negotiations over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. In fact, that would be no great loss, since Iran was never going to negotiate away its longstanding nuclear-weapons aspirations, a reality that Obama is congenitally unable to acknowledge. Syria today is the focal point of the ancient Sunni–Shia conflict, which is well beyond America’s power to resolve. Rather than encourage more fighting in Syria, we should concentrate on eliminating Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program. So doing would make our Arab friends less worried by, and more able on their own to rebuff, Iran’s politico-military adventurism around the region.
Unsurprisingly, the United Nations has failed, is failing, and will continue to fail to resolve the Syria conflict. The Security Council is and will remain hopelessly divided, given Russian and Chinese intransigence. Kofi Annan’s ill-fated ceasefire plan and his overall approach prove beyond dispute that negotiations require a negotiator with something in his back pocket other than a white handkerchief. So long as the various Syrian factions believe they can prevail militarily, they have no incentive to negotiate or compromise. Even the Obama administration now seems to recognize that the U.N. is an empty vessel.