The Debate over Syria
A rising death toll raises the question: To intervene or not?
Why We Must Fight Alongside the Rebels
By Shadi Hamid
The Syrian uprising began nearly a year ago, and despite renewed international efforts, the regime has intensified the killing. The death toll--approaching 8,000--is now five times what it was in Libya on the eve of the NATO intervention there. These are "crimes against humanity," a U.N. panel concluded recently.
Those of us who supported military action in Libya hoped that it might set a precedent, so that the next time, the U.S. and Europe would act quickly and decisively to protect civilian populations in the event of mass slaughter during the Arab Spring. The Syrian opposition has issued unambiguous calls for foreign military intervention. This is no Western imposition. It is Syrians--like Libyans before them--who are pleading that the West do more, not less.
Already, military intervention enjoys considerable Arab and Muslim legitimacy. The Turks, Qataris, Tunisians and Saudis have all called for various degrees of intervention, whether through safe zones, peacekeeping forces or arms for the Syrian rebels. But these countries cannot do it on their own. They are waiting for the U.S. to lead efforts to assemble a coalition that can intervene effectively and then help stabilize Syria after hostilities cease.
No doubt the risks of intervention are considerable. But so too are the risks of not intervening. Opponents of intervention have warned of militarization, civil war, Iranian meddling and an exodus of refugees. Well, all these things have already come to pass. Syria today is in danger of becoming a failed state. The regime has lost control over large swaths of territory. Al-Qaeda and other extremists are hoping to take advantage of the growing power vacuum. Can the world afford a failing state and protracted civil war in such a vital region?
If the objective of intervention is to protect civilian populations, then the first step is for the U.S. to help other countries provide Syrian rebel forces with both light arms and more-advanced antitank and antiaircraft weaponry. The right to self-defense is a right guaranteed by international law. The second step would be the designation of liberated zones--particularly those along the border with Turkey--as safe havens, as was done in Bosnia during the 1990s. To protect these areas, airpower and some special forces, preferably soldiers from Arab nations or Turkey, would be needed. The goal would not necessarily be to change the regime but rather to demonstrate international resolve, encourage regime defections and compel the Syrian government to alter its calculations about the use of force.