Should the United States intervene in the Syrian civil war? No. Intervention in Syria’s civil war would not serve America’s interests. Although the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is inherently inimical to the United States and Israel as well as to most of his own people, the other side in the civil war may be even more so. Today, the issues in Syria are pretty strictly about which Syrians will oppress other Syrians, and to what end. Our good intentions toward the Syrian people do not make up for our lack of knowledge of which faction, if any, would best serve their interests—never mind ours—and for our lack of capacity to ensure any particular outcome. The opposition has coalesced into three major groups, the strongest of which are controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahabis. To the extent that either side in today’s strife secures Syria for itself, American interests will suffer. At this time, humanitarian aid to refugees who make it out of the country is the best we can do for Syria. Nevertheless, Syria’s civil war may give us opportunities to serve U.S. interests in the region.
The Assad regime has harmed and endangered America in countless instances ever since its establishment in 1970. The U.S. government could have moved against the Assads in response to any of these, removing a source of trouble and providing incentives for good behavior to other states in the region. We would have been acting for our own sake, in control of the outcome of our initiatives. These missed opportunities for asserting our own interests shed light on the strategies we might employ to deal with whatever might come from the Syrian civil war.
The Assad regime was the Soviet Union’s main Cold War outpost in the Middle East, armed with the latest Soviet weaponry. At first acting on the Soviets’ behalf, and later on behalf or Iran, the Assad regime became arguably the main host of terrorist organizations, and has waged war on Israel through proxy bands it established as “states within the state” in Lebanon. On two of many occasions, the trouble it made for America put it in the U.S. government’s line of fire. In 1982 the Assads’ war on Israel through the PLO in Lebanon led to Israel’s alliance with the Lebanese government to eradicate the PLO. After that, the U.S. government sought to help Lebanon re-establish control over its territory. It was then that Syrian agents along with Iranian-backed terrorists truck-bombed the U.S. Marine barracks killing 241 of them. Had the U.S. government responded properly to this act of war, the Assads would never have troubled anyone again. Instead, Republican and Democratic Administrations eased Syria’s control of Lebanon.
By 2003 the Assads were exercising that control through the terrorist group Hezbollah, waging war on Israel’s northern border, and acting as Iran’s main proxy. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Assads made Syria into the headquarters of anti-U.S. forces and the main funnel through which suicide bombers as well as sophisticated weapons killed Americans. A weapon from Syria accounted for the only U.S. Abrams tank killed in Iraq. The 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003 were more than enough to inspire and support whomever we wished to overthrow the Assads, or simply to overthrow them ourselves. Instead, the U.S. government contented itself with impotent requests for good behavior. By 2006, an emboldened Syria had provoked war between Hezbollah and Israel. Had the U.S. government not stopped the Israelis, they would have finished permanently crippling this arm of America’s enemies.
Syria’s civil war creates new opportunities for advancing our interests. For example: Hezbollah is occupied trying to support the Assad regime, while that regime is no longer capable of supporting it. These Iranian proxies’ control of Lebanon is open to challenge. Their loss of control would weaken Iran significantly. Lebanon’s independence from Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran is very much in America’s interest. The U.S. government should give up its half-hearted, mostly blind, second-hand, ultimately impotent involvement with the Syrian opposition in favor of open, wholehearted encouragement and support of Lebanese independence. Weakening our enemies is our business, and the current situation offers us another opportunity to mind that business.
Foreigners are likelier to understand actions that we undertake to advance our own interests or in response to harm done to us—provided they are successful—than they are to accept even slight, well-intentioned interventions in their own affairs.