With much of the news focusing on the explosion of protests in Egypt right now, it's important to consider the lessons of the other major Middle Eastern country consumed by turmoil. Syria is a case study for a revolution gone wrong, and with the increased focus on the regional fallout of the Arab Spring, there is mounting pressure on U.S. leaders to intercede. Here are a few reasons why we should not.
1. Arming the rebels is asking for trouble.
Some argue for arming people who are on "our side" as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it. Determining who is on "our side" is easier said than done. Our intelligence is so incomplete it couldn't even prevent a smiling McCain from unwittingly being photographed with accused terrorists while on a recent, highly secretive visit to Syria.
As the New York Times noted last April, there are no rebel factions that are secularists or pro-western. There's a strong chance heavy arms sent to help rebels will fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda or affiliated groups, where they will likely be used against Americans or our allies.
Abu Bakr, a rebel commander in Aleppo, snarled to journalists: “Are we meant to say to jihadists or some Islamists the Americans don’t like you, sorry we can’t fight with you anymore or we can’t share our guns even though you shared with us?”
2. Intervention may actually empower radical jihadists.
There is an enormous risk that American intervention will be spun by our enemies to help their own cause. As former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out in Time magazine, "American involvement would simply mobilize the most extreme elements of these factions against the U.S. and pose the danger that the conflict would spill over into the neighborhood and set Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon on fire."
The Middle East is split down religious and ethnic lines over the removal of Assad. Intervening in a civil war is likely to rouse hatred and terrorist aggression against us from whichever faction we choose sides against, so intervention is lose-lose for the U.S.
3. Other nations aren't exactly falling over each other to intervene.
That may be because they know "humanitarian" intervention could very well just produce more mass casualties, as it did during the Iraq War, where over 100,000 died as a result of the U.S.-led invasion.
A limited intervention, such as a no-fly zone, might not be so costly. Would it even work? Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that it would "take longer and require more resources" than in Libya. Even if it worked, he believes it would not produce the political outcomes hoped for by members of Congress.
If a no-fly zone is unsuccessful, and Assad continues to cross "red lines," it sets us up for more serious, and potentially disastrous intervention.
4. Intervention puts us head-to-head with Iran.
Iran just sent 4,000 troops to Syria to aid President Assad. Can we beat Iran in combat? Absolutely. But fighting Iran may exacerbate tensions and lead to renewed hostility over their nuclear program. It may even lead to the isolation of the relatively moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani, who was just elected president and has suggested embracing a "new transparency" over the program. We could effectively destroy the possibility of nuclear transparency without even having given Rowhani a chance to prove himself.
5. Syria poses no threat to the U.S.
It is not easy to weigh risks of action vs. inaction with respect to maintaining political stability and contain weapons proliferation in Syria, but we should take a page out of Israel's play book; Israel has a policy of remaining effectively neutral in the war and is not intervening, except to stop weapons shipments and spillover battles that could pose a threat to its own citizens. War is for defense, not "objectives."
Bashar al-Assad is a dictator and a murderer, without a doubt. But the Muslim World has many old tensions, grudges and injustices to sort through in the wake of the Arab Spring and the rapid political changes sweeping the region. Many of these issues are poorly understood by political leaders in the West. We'd do well to let them determine their own destinies.