Protesters gather after the funeral of a member of the Free Syrian Army, a militia mostly made up of army defectors, in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, in Syria, January 27, 2012. (Photo: Tomas Munita / The New York Times).
The awful pictures, videos and stories coming out of Syria have US government officials starting to consider more serious options to help Syrians overthrow their authoritarian regime, including military intervention. Although it is estimated that at least 6,000 people have been killed in the past 11 months, military strikes would fail to protect civilians and make the situation even worse for Syrians.
CNN recently reported that the Pentagon and US Central Command have begun a preliminary internal review of US military capabilities in order to look at various options for military intervention in Syria.
This is not the first American hint at military intervention. In October, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) called for an internationally imposed no-fly zone over Syria. Strong words of condemnation from President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice highlight how the Obama administration is escalating pressure against Assad's regime.
With massacres continuing in Syria - more than 300 have been reported killed in Homs just this past week - and the commonplace perception in the Washington establishment of the supposed "success" of the NATO intervention in Libya, the dire consequences that could result from military intervention are continually overlooked.
Killing More Syrians to Save Them?
There is no clear picture of what targets in Syria should be hit or how exactly military strikes would bring down the regime. Unlike in Libya, where there were massive defections from both the government and Army, the regime in Syria has proven quite resilient and seems intent on putting its survival above all else. Foreign military strikes would only push the regime to unleash even more brutality against Syrians.
Military intervention would also actually kill many more civilians considering that most of the killing being done by the regime is in densely packed urban areas and, thus, efforts to intervene through air power would only add to civilian casualties. More limited military options such as imposing a no-fly zone are not realistic considering the regime is not using helicopters or war planes in its crackdown. As Marc Lynch writes, these realities make one realize that, although military intervention in Syria to stop the killing might appeal to the soul, it makes no sense.
Most importantly, outside intervention, especially one spearheaded by the United States and its allies, would only legitimate the regime's rhetoric about this entire uprising being a "foreign conspiracy" and further alienate the people whom the intervention is supposedly benefiting. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) came into existence because there were defections from the armed forces due to the deliberate targeting of nonviolent protesters. (Lynch also points out that the FSA "remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups.") On the other hand, foreign forces bombing one's country provide little incentive for more soldiers and Army officers to abandon the regime. One also cannot ignore that there are sectarian tensions in the country, which the regime has incited for decades for its own benefit. These tensions would only be inflamed into a full-fledged civil war, or even a regional war, if war is waged on Syria by outside forces.
If Not Military Strikes, Then What?
Taking the "military intervention option" off the table does not mean there is nothing the international community can do for Syrians. Refugees are flooding into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and need a lot of humanitarian aid.
Russia continues to sell weapons to the regime. Rather than using its diplomatic influence, limited as it may be, to pressure Russia into signing on to yet another round of sanctions against Iran, it is time the United States presses both Russia and Iran to call on Assad to stop the killing and allow aid into besieged cities.
The various opposition groups must be encouraged to continue appealing to Syrians across religious, ethnic and socioeconomic divides. There must also be more effort by activists to expand their civil resistance efforts to include workers' strikes and school boycotts all over the country, which would send a clear signal to the regime that it has lost all support.
It is admirable that American officials are so concerned with the plight of Syrians and working to bring it to an end. Of course, one can only hope that the same concern would also be shown to those people being attacked or killed with American weapons and by American allies in Bahrain, Palestine/Israel, and other countries around the world, and that similar efforts would be taken to stop their US-supported suffering.