Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other world leaders met in Tunisia to discuss options to stop the brutal violence gripping Syria. Little was accomplished except for the issuing of strong statements against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and requests to allow humanitarian aid into the country. The lack of action is unfortunate as Assad continues a crackdown on his own people that has killed thousands of innocent civilians and even some Western journalists reporting from the front lines. The demands for Assad to step down are intense, but there is little that the West is willing to do. The problem in Syria is that humanitarian interests cannot be separated from high political risks in a volatile region.
A general rule of thumb in international relations is that America should avoid armed conflict in the Middle East. It rarely ends well. But where it has been successful – most notably in Libya last year – armed conflict only succeed because of a rare confluence of factors. In Libya, the military operations were limited in scope. Libya held little strategic interest in the region. An invasion, state building, and elections were not required. The risk of regional conflict was low. America and its European allies had the legitimacy granted by a UN resolution authorizing force to protect civilians.
But Syria is no Libya, and as such, avoiding conflict is the wisest option. Syria lies at the heart of a turbulent region and shares borders with Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel. Syria has long maintained close ties with Iran and has served as a conduit between Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The problem is that a military conflict with Syria could easily erupt into a broader conflict with Iran, Lebanon, Israel, and a number of non-state actors. To make matters worse, Russia and China have already vetoed UN resolutions against Syria, further weakening the international outcry against Syria.
American and other Western diplomats in the so-called Friends of Syria group are perfectly aware of these realities, which is why action on Syria is moving so slowly. A few prominent politicians, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have suggested arming the opposition forces, but this idea is foolish given that there is no guarantee where the weapons will end up or how they will be used. A Libya-style no-fly zone and air campaign could work to weaken the Syrian forces and strengthen the morale of the opposition. But military action of any kind could be seen as a threat to Iran, who could potentially react with military action of its own. A limited air operation in one country could easily disintegrate into a regional conflict and lead to a humanitarian crisis far greater than the one already underway.
With so many Arab dictators falling, many humanitarians and diplomats are hoping that Assad will go the way of Egypt's Mubarak, Libya's Gaddafi, Tunisia's bin Ali, and Yemen's Saleh. But there are times when even the most liberal interventionists must cede to the realists. Humanitarian intervention cannot become a political risk.
Assad is either fearlessly naïve or wisely calculating, but my guess is that Assad understands that the Friends of Syria have their hands tied. The West can do little except look on and hope for the best. Even the big dogs have to pick their fights.
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