Is it reasonable for the West to say it wants to discourage radical jihadists in Syria — and then give Syria’s rebels reason to turn straight in that direction? The answer seems to be self-evident, but the intervention question is rarely framed in these particular terms.
Regardless, it should be. If the U.S. is worried about the Syrian rebels becoming radicalized, the surest way to do so isn’t by giving them support — it’s by promising support and then standing idly by as the war continues, but for negotiating a deal with Syria’s dictator, thereby giving him legitimacy he sorely needs.
Let’s be honest: A strike on Syria is probably not going to happen. With President Obama’s political capital on a buildup to military action now spent, illuminating the war-weariness of the American public at large, the chance is near-zero for a future hit on Assad.
This is the case even if terms of the new chemical weapons deal are not met: If the poison gas attack (not to mention the deaths of a hundred thousand via conventional weapons) couldn't compel action, the breaking or delay of some weapons-inspection procedure certainly won’t, particularly because that scenario would too closely echo the Bush v. Saddam saga in the early 2000s. This is a script the American people are unlikely to want to follow again, even if Assad does have weapons of mass destruction.
If, against all odds, Assad’s chemical weapons can be successfully removed from the conflict, that is no doubt a positive development. Though it’s contingent on the goodwill of both Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad, it’s certainly possible the removal of Syria’s stockpiles can come to pass.
This would be good for the world, and good for Syria. However, even if accomplished, there is still a civil war between two sides in Syria, one of which the United States has recognized as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.
It’s true, Syria’s civil war is a complicated matter, and intervention of any kind would be fraught with risks. But non-intervention is fraught with risks as well – in many cases the same risks. In fact, the hands-off option presents one particular risk: It leaves Syrian rebels no choice but to turn to Al-Qaeda and other Islamist factions.
This must be considered especially if one of the main arguments for non-intervention is that if we aid the Syrian rebels, we are likely to end up indirectly aiding Islamists in the region. If there’s a vacuum of Western leadership, the space remaining will be filled — in this case with those very Islamists, who are unfortunately the only major outside party willing to put themselves on the line in the Syrian rebels’ life-or-death struggle. And should the rebels in the end be victorious, they’re likely to adopt (or at least view far more favorably) the worldview of those to whom they owe their existence.
Of course, it’ll be easy to wag our fingers at the Syrian rebels should they take over and set up a government amenable to Islamist interests. But were you in their shoes, who would you trust after Washington, London, and Paris’s withdrawal of significant support? Who would have more credibility, the West or Islamists? Would you even be in a position to reject Islamist support?
By withholding tangible military support from Syria’s rebels, the U.S. is inadvertently doing the very thing it is seeking not to do — make things easier for the Islamists. And with the rebels now disillusioned with the West’s pullback, will it really be so hard?
There are things that the U.S. could have done short of putting boots on the ground: Implementation of a no-fly zone, setting up a safe zone from which the rebels can be based, and delivering a serious blow to Assad’s command and control capabilities, beyond just his ability to deliver chemical weapons. There’s also, of course, the option of arming the rebels, potentially at the level that Russia is currently arming Assad. In the end, perhaps a breakup of Syria’s territory may be in order, but best to take this action sooner rather than later.
Not all of these are necessarily solutions in themselves to the Syrian civil war. But they are compelling options to help encourage moderate rebel forces to take the lead in the struggle against Assad. Knowing that the U.S. is willing and able to help will discourage a turn towards radicalism. On the contrary, it will be very difficult for the West to have any say in achieving its stated goals of a free and democratic Syria if it had no stake in the struggle to get there.