It is a poverty that over a thousand people had to convulse, vomit, and die in pools of their own excrement for the West to finally pay attention to Syria, but here we are. We now watch one of the most detestable atrocities in a decade from thousands of miles away, talking about cruise missiles when we should be talking about invasion. It didn’t have to be like this.
To say that the situation in Syria is a disaster would grossly understate the magnitude of the problem. Bashar al-Assad is either willing to use weapons of mass destruction with impunity, which is bad, or has lost control of his military, which would be much, much worse. Al-Nusra Front, a local affiliate of Al-Qaeda, roams from village to village bombing Alawites. Imported Hizbullah death squads are given free license to stalk the southern cities looking for dissidents. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon buckle under the massive influx of refugees and frequent border incursions. Worst of all is the staggering human toll, with at least one hundred and twenty thousand people dead, and five million living in tents. Factions on both sides have committed brutal war crimes and there is no end in sight as the various groups dig into their positions and prepare for a war of attrition.
The case for removing Bashar al-Assad makes itself. Besides the usual offenses that go along with being a longtime autocrat and predate the state of open warfare with his countrymen, Assad has been a remarkably damaging force in a region with fragile social and political foundations. The assistance he has provided to Hizbullah, the temerity with which he promotes the interests of Iran, and the antagonism towards his neighbors are all reasons which by themselves would justify regime change. Taken together, and in the context of the conflict, they demand it. Sadly, we cannot rely on locals to manage the situation Assad’s absence, as wars have a way of making score-settling a priority when they end. As I said before, it didn’t have to be like this, but here we are.
Intervention is long overdue, and pivotal moments have been ignored in the face of political pressure in other areas. The point at which the United States could have stepped in to define the Syrian Civil War was in mid-2011 when the Free Syrian Army crystallized as the flagship organization of the opposition. Largely secular and formed with a clear purpose, they stood out as the best option to rapidly perform regime change while deleveraging Iran’s influence in the region, both of which would have significantly improved America’s strategic position in the Levant and broader Middle East. Lending clear and unambiguous support in the form of training, weapons, equipment, advisors, and airstrikes would have allowed the Syrian opposition to dominate the situation with rapidity such that the disempowered Assad would be readily replaced by a functional secular government. It would have returned large stability dividends without major expenditure on the part of the United States. Instead, we allowed the situation to get so far out of hand that the need for a large and probably permanent peacekeeping force has arisen.
There is a consistent and regrettable pattern of half-measures and knee-jerking in American foreign policy that hamstrings our ability to influence the course of world events. Instead of taking the uncomfortable but necessary steps to prevent emergent crises early and often, we wait until a situation has reached critical mass, then wring our hands when awful things happen. Gulf War II would not have been necessary if we had pushed through to Baghdad and finished the job during Gulf War I. Just because we occasionally fouled up low-level intervention during the Cold War doesn’t mean that we should entirely abandon the practice. For every Bay of Pigs, we killed ten Che Guevaras, and Latin America is better off for it. Precisely that kind of proactive policy is key to enabling secular liberals to gain a foothold in governments around the world, and precisely that kind of proactive policy is needed in the Middle East. Radio Free fill-in-the-blank, some well-placed drone strikes, and a couple boxes of rifles to the right people go a long way towards keeping us out of costly invasions and endless peacekeeping operations down the road. Most importantly, fewer people die.
If we don’t get involved now, the situation will escalate. The cat (or sarin, in this case) is out of the bag and it is in Bashar al-Assad’s best interests to end the war quickly and violently before a drone strike ends his run as dictator. Until we do get involved, and with boots on the ground, more chemical weapons will be deployed or stolen by terrorists, more innocent people will be massacred, and more instability will push an already fragile region to the breaking point.
The administration should exercise rapid dominance, occupy with a coalition of Arab League and NATO allies, secure any free-range munitions, install an interim technocrat, and end this bloody mess.