Dismay over the continued violence in Syria is understandable and should impel the United States, other “friends of Syria” and the United Nations to support relief measures including, if necessary, the creation of safe havens for refugees. But the Obama administration is right to stop short of either arming Syrian rebels — who, according to U.S. intelligence officials, have been infiltrated by Islamic extremists from outside the country — or engaging in direct military intervention. Advocates of military involvement exaggerate the ease with which the U.S. could shape events in Syria and underestimate the dangers.
The civil war in Syria, an echo of the Arab Spring but also increasingly a sectarian struggle and a proxy battle between Sunni and Shiite Muslim nations, is a humanitarian disaster. In August as many as 5,000 people were killed, and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that more than 100,000 Syrians fled their country during that month, doubling the number of refugees to 235,000. More than 1 million Syrians may need emergency food aid.
Advocates of arming the Syrian rebels or imposing a Libya-style “no-fly zone” — which, given Syria’s air defenses, would probably require a major bombing campaign to be effective — suggest that altering the military equation is the best way to end the suffering of the Syrian people. After all, the interventionists note, China and Russia are determined to block any diplomatic attempt by the United States and the Arab League to bring pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step aside. Mediation efforts by the United Nations — recently assigned to a new special envoy, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi — continue to founder. Without military pressure on the regime, the argument goes, plans by exiled Syrians for a post-Assad future for the country are an exercise in futility. Meanwhile, Syrians will continue to die and abandon their homes.
To be sure, some advocates of intervention have geopolitical motives for assisting the rebels, notably undermining the position of Iran, Assad’s ally and patron. Still, the humanitarian argument for intervention is a serious one. The key questions are whether the threat to civilians has become dire enough to merit U.S. involvement in a war of choice on the other side of the globe, or whether other steps could be taken to minimize the loss of life without arming the rebels or attacking the regime. One alternative to war is to increase pressure on Assad — and here Russia might be supportive — to accede to requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross for measures to protect civilians (and thus slow and even reverse the tide of refugees). If necessary, civilian areas could be placed under the protection of international peacekeepers.
The time may come when the only alternative to a bloodbath in Syria is military intervention by the U.S. and other outside powers, with all the attendant risks. But it has not yet arrived.