With the confirmation by U.S. intelligence that Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin gas, to slaughter Syrian rebels, the “red line” that President Obama laid down when it comes to U.S. intervention in Syria has been crossed. The administration has decided to arm Syrian rebels in response to this development, but is continuing its policy of strategic restraint when it comes to Syria. The White House has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria — a wise call.
Beyond a humanitarian motive, possibly putting a check on the regional influence of Iran and Russia, and the interest of seeing unattainable stability in the region, the U.S. does not have much to gain in stepping into the middle of another civil war. The humanitarian motive is much better served helping the surrounding countries deal with the massive influx of Syrian refugees, because shifting the balance of power in Syria is not going to stop the killing, it's only going to change who is doing the majority of the killing. Syria is an ethnic war similar to Iraq.
To understand this, first we must understand what is the root of the crisis in Syria. When the Western colonial powers sketched out the borders of the Middle East after World War I, they installed minority regimes in three states: the Maronite Christians in Lebanon, the Sunnis in Iraq, and the Alawites in Syria. The motive behind putting minority groups in power was to retain influence in the region, as a minority regime would rely upon outside support from the British or the French. Sunnis make up 20% of Iraq's demographics, yet they were ruling the 60% Shi'a and 20% Kurds. Similarly, only about 15% of Syrians are Alawite, governing a coalition of 85% of Syrians who are not.
In the last several decades, we have seen this house of cards collapse in all three states as populist uprisings have ousted the minority regimes from power, resulting in decade-long bloody civil wars. The first was in Lebanon starting in 1975, which resulted in a civil war that lasted for a decade and a half. The second was in Iraq, the civil war we put ourselves in the middle of at the cost of almost 4,500 American lives. We helped kick out Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, but the ousted Sunnis fought back as insurgents, and that opened the door to Iraq becoming a breeding ground for Al-Qaeda. Despite our intervention, this civil war was a bloody decade-long ordeal.
Syria’s conflict will also be at least a decade long civil war. It will not be pretty, but this is the culmination of horrendously bad decisions made by Western powers almost a century ago. We are in the midst of the first phase of the Syrian civil war, where Assad is clinging onto power and slaughtering tens of thousands of Syrian rebels. The second phase of the war will be the ethnic cleansing of the Alawites in a post-Assad Syria. Assad will likely die in Syria, and his regime will be ousted by the rebels, who to get revenge will begin massacring the ethnic minorities once in power, causing a mass displacement of Alawite refugees. This is why intervention will not do much to change the humanitarian condition of Syria, it would just change the equation of who is massacring who. The third phase of the war will be the fighting between the segments of the coalition of the victorious rebels for power. The Syrian rebels are not a unified force. They are a coalition of groups that have a common enemy in Assad, but the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" theory will not hold up once that common enemy is no longer a threat.
What is happening in Syria is a tragedy, but it is one we can do little about. This is not Libya, where the divisions were political instead of ethnic and where the geography gave an advantage to the rebels that is nonexistent in relatively compact Syria. This is a civil war parallel to what happened in Iraq and Lebanon — the final house of cards collapsing in the trio of poorly stacked structures. There is no good decision to be made on Syria, only a distinction of bad ones and worse ones.
A big reason Barack Obama is president today is because in 2008 he was the only top-tier presidential candidate in either party who made the right call on Iraq. I hope he exercises the same intuition when it comes to Syria.