Here’s a tweet that’s been making the “we have to DO something in Syria!” rounds lately.
As is typical of this genre, it presents the horrific violence in Syria as somehow proof-positive that we have an obligation to intervene militarily in the country. This elides the most pertinent question: does intervening militarily actually prevent slaughter? In presenting the differing scale of the killing in Libya as an argument for intervention in Syria, El-Baghdadi misrepresents the point of the Libyan analog. We point to Libya not as a source of death on the scale of Syria, but to demonstrate the inaccuracy of an assumption made by many interventionists: that notion that following the removal of a sitting government, even a brutal and corrupt dictatorship, the democratic process will simply take hold and something like a functioning liberal state emerge. As Libya demonstrates, the most likely outcome of the removal of a despotic government is a period of civil war, factionalism, and competition among various strongmen to see who will fill the vacuum with a new type of authoritarian power.
If we acknowledge that simply removing a corrupt government from power will only result in a continuation of civil war and bloodshed, then the next military option becomes the full Monty — indefinite occupation and the establishment of a quasi-democratic government in its place. There we have a very compelling recent historical analog in a country that borders Syria and which shares some of the same sectarian divisions and on-the-ground conditions. Iraq functions as a type of natural experiment for a potential Syrian occupation. So: did the presence of a vast number of American troops, who established a puppet government and had an explicit war aim of preventing humanitarian tragedy, result in the prevention of bloodshed in Iraq? No, quite the opposite. Take a look.
It cannot be credibly argued that the presence of a vast American occupying force prevented wholesale slaughter. While we had more than 150,000 troops within the country, Iraqis were dying by the hundreds of thousands. That’s to say nothing of the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, the collapse of its civic institutions, the flight of millions of refugees, and the massive polarization of Iraq’s citizenry into sectarian divisions that have undermined the capacity for functioning democratic governance. Whatever power occupation has, it does not appear to be remotely credible to say that occupation has the ability to prevent internal violence, even when the occupying force numbers in the hundreds of thousands and when hundreds of billions of dollars are spent in the effort.
It’s still common to hear foreign policy types celebrate “the Surge,” but such celebrations ignore that perceived security gains from that period likely stemmed from a) the fact that the ethnic cleansing of contested areas was by that point essentially complete, turning previously diverse neighborhoods and cities into territories controlled by warring sects, b) a simple reduction in the amount of potential combatants, as so many of them had already been killed, and c) the vast bribery that was the actual vehicle of change brought about by the Surge, where the US government funnelled immense amounts of cash and weaponry into the hands of Iraqi groups who said the right things, some of which have landed in the hands of ISIL and in turn been used to fight the establishment government in Iraq. This is to say nothing of the fact that this government is increasingly authoritarian and almost impossible corrupt, or that the post-occupation conditions were the perfect petri dish for growing the disease that is ISIL, an organization of almost cartoon evil that has proven its great military prowess and wrested vast swaths of territory from the Iraqi government. Nor is it credible to say that our problem was leaving too soon; you cannot wait out the native population of a country. After all, they live there.
Against such recent, geographically immediate, politically and socially analogous comparisons, the interventionists trot out the same bad comparisons, usually Kosovo. We can set aside the fact that post-intervention Kosovo actually saw terrible reprisal violence and that these reprisals caused a de facto ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Roma from the area. Instead, simply ask yourself which is a more apt comparison: a country on a different continent, made up of very different ethnic and sectarian groups, in a pre-9/11 context, and an intervention made up of a very different political coalition, in a much more stable local geopolitical climate? Or a literally neighboring country that is also under attack from the same paramilitary force, faces many of the same sectarian divisions, suffers from the same long legacy of colonial rule and Western-backed dictatorship, and which still houses thousands of American personnel and an untold number of “military contractors”?
No, the most likely outcome of a Syrian occupation would be a fairly swift, bloody, and destructive end to the Assad regime; a continuation of the immense sectarian violence already going on; an anti-American insurgency; the establishment of a Vichy government dressed up with democratic optics which would by necessity be seen as illegitimate by a very large portion of the Syrian people; a renewed insurgency against that government; reprisals, both violent and political, against the losing sects; thousands of American troops killed during a protracted occupation; hundreds of billions of dollars spent; and, after the inevitable exhausted withdrawal, a new wave of violence and new challenges to the political, military, and territorial integrity of the American-backed government.
Sound like a good plan?
Americans are deeply committed to the notions that their government is a moral force and that it is an omnipotent force. To my surprise, I’ve come to see that they are, when pushed by events, much more willing to admit the error in the former than the latter. That is, a lot of people will, in time, be forced by evidence to admit that the US is a force for destruction and violence in the world, but are much less willing to see that there are in fact very significant limits to our power. That, it seems, is just too destabilizing to contemplate. And so you see this dogged insistence, against all evidence, that we could do anything but simply choose not to. Take, for example, the spinning of absurd, non-falsifiable counterfactuals that insist there was a time when we could have saved Syria, if only we’d had the will. The truth is, as life keeps insisting, that the world is out of our control, that we are not and will never be a force for good, that our limitations our profound, that we couldn’t save the beleaguered peoples of the world even if we wanted to, and that the cost of never absorbing this lesson will be paid in blood.