Q & A: Why the US doesn't want to intervene in Syria


A woman walks behind Lebanese army commandos driving an armored personnel carrier in the Lebanese northern port city of Tripoli on August 23, 2012. Violence in Syria has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon, despite a truce to halt days of violence between pro- and anti-Damascus gunmen.



Since US President Barack Obama's remarks on Monday affirming that the US would consider military intervention in Syria if it detected the movement or use of chemical weapons, China and Russia have been quick to pounce.

"Once again, Western powers are digging deep for excuses to intervene militarily," commentary in China's state-run media exclaimed. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, condemned the idea of unilateral action and warned against waging "democracy by bombs."

Syria, too — during a diplomatic visit to Moscow for talks with China and Russia — claimed that the US "is looking for a pretext to intervene militarily," in the words of Foreign Minister Qadri Jamil.

But foreign policy experts have voiced doubts that the US wants to engage militarily in Syria. What's more, the effectiveness of potential intervention is seriously questioned.

For more on what outside intervention would mean in Syria, GlobalPost turned to Andrew C. Miller, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action, who has been closely following the conflict in Syria. Below is an edited version of the exchange.

What was the intended purpose of Obama's comments on chemical weapons? Have they achieved that purpose or are they backfiring?

Russia and China expectedly had visceral reactions to the president’s comments on the use of chemical weapons. But, Obama didn’t lay out the “red line” on chemical weapons to bring them around on intervention.

Rather, his message was targeted for two groups: the Assad regime and belligerent actors operating in Syria. The regime has already declared that its chemical weapons “will never, never be used against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances.” Obama’s warning served to reinforce this reticence by threatening the use of force if the regime reverses its policy.

Whether or not the warning resonated with belligerent actors on the ground is less clear. It would be extremely problematic if the weapons fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or, say, rogue elements of the Syrian military. Such groups would be less fearful of an intervention. Indeed, they would see US involvement in the conflict as welcome targets and a propaganda boon to their cause.

Paul Stares, a CFR fellow, recently made several cautionary notes regarding intervention in Syria. Are they being heeded? What is the best way to proceed in Syria right now?

Obama’s approach to Syria is largely dictated by the chaotic circumstances on the ground and the broader geopolitics surrounding the crisis. As a result, Mitt Romney’s policy would be quite similar if he were president. Administration officials understand that an intervention at this point would probably make the already ugly situation even uglier. In particular, they recognize that intervention would cause Russia and Iran to ramp up their support for the regime and play into Al Qaeda’s portrayal of the United States as crusaders.

Thus far, the Obama administration has pursued a judicious and pragmatic policy. It should maintain its current approach of providing overt non-military support for the oppositions — and perhaps covert lethal support — unless the conflict metastasizes significantly. The use of chemical weapons is one such development that would warrant, in the president’s words, a “change in [his] calculus.”

Should countries be intervening in Syria at this point? If so, which?

Military intervention makes little sense at this juncture. As [was] the case with Libya, the United States would have to play an instrumental role in any large-scale, sustained operation. It has “unique capabilities” — especially, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets — that no other country possesses.

Do you have any faith in progress the international community could make via UN action in Syria?

Kofi Annan’s disastrous experience as the UN’s Syria envoy suggests that his replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi, will have difficulty making progress. Brahimi is a capable diplomat, but Chinese and Russian willingness to veto any muscular resolutions on Syria neuter his ability to effect change. One of Brahimi’s first acts in his new role has been to travel to New York and Cairo to shore up support that Annan was never able to obtain. But, as Brahimi told the Associated Press, he has “an extremely complicated and very, very difficult mission.”

Is the conflict in Syria one that allows for intervention that would have a high chance of success? What conditions need to be present for military intervention to succeed?

An intervention would not have a strong prospect of success given the current conditions. Take, for instance, one option being considered: the establishment of “safe havens” protected from the air by the United States and its partners. A recent MIT working paper concluded that, due to Syria’s geography and the regime’s capability, the operation would require more resources, carry more risks, and have a lower probability of success than previous air campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya.

Another important consideration for the administration is contemplating what a post-Assad Syria looks like. If the safe zones exceeded expectations and led to Assad’s fall, it is not clear who would fill the power vacuum. The opposition movement remains fractious and many of Syria’s minorities are wary of a potential Sunni-dominated government. These tensions make a stable, viable transition — perhaps the most critical condition for the long-term success of an intervention — unlikely.

Watch more Syria analysis from GlobalPost's Middle East Editor Peter Gelling: