Thousands of people have already died in Syria, and it appears likely that thousands more will die in the weeks and months to come. Bashar Al Assad’s forces show no sign of relenting, and the international community shows no sign of coming to the rescue of the Syrian people. China and Russia have effectively blocked any chance of working through the United Nations. World opinion is horrified, but world leaders are paralyzed. No lack of diplomatic effort has been expended in trying to get Assad to back down; but these efforts have done nothing to stop the bloodshed. It now seems possible that non-diplomatic options—namely, arming the rebels or using Western airpower to weaken the regime, as we did so successfully in Libya—might be the only way to halt the killing. Should the United States act on these options? It is not an easy question, but we think that the case for doing so is starting to look stronger than the case against.
Some of the arguments against arming the rebels or deploying airpower in Syria are of the old, cynical, hard-hearted variety; but plenty of others are sober and worth taking seriously. Perhaps the most important is that we know so little about the rebels whose side we would be taking. What kind of country would they build in Assad’s wake? Would the Sunni majority, once in power, exact revenge against the Alawi minority?
To this objection, we would simply say that, while questions about the country’s future are important, right now the question that matters most is how to stop a nasty regime from killing people daily in the streets. Should we really allow innocent people to be killed by this government because the next government could be far from perfect?
To be clear, we do not want to see troops deployed to Syria. We are not arguing for another Iraq or another Afghanistan—both of which have offered cautionary lessons about the limits of American power. We are not even necessarily arguing for another Libya, since the geography of the Syrian conflict might not permit as extensive an air campaign as was used against Muammar Qaddafi. All we are recommending is that the United States and its allies look for ways to help the rebels hold off Assad’s troops, by arming them or using some degree of airpower on their behalf, or both.
America’s track record when we take on such limited interventions is actually quite good. Think back through the similar emergencies that have unfolded over the past several decades—the situations where an awful government has engaged in mass slaughter. Which of these situations does the United States today remember as success stories and which as failures? Do we generally regret having done too much to stop massacres or too little? In East Timor in the 1970s, we did nothing and the result was more than 100,000 dead. We have never stopped regretting our failure to act in Rwanda—and never will. At first, in Bosnia, we sat on the sidelines and the result was monstrous. But, eventually, we acted against Slobodan Milosevic, and the killing finally stopped. In Kosovo, in East Timor the second time (in 1999), and in Libya, we managed to stop massacres. None of these situations has turned out perfectly. But there is no doubt that, by intervening, the United States and its allies saved lives.
Both the United States and Europe are tired of war. Having just saved Libya from Qaddafi, there is an understandable reluctance to initiate another intervention so soon. But are these ultimately acceptable reasons to let thousands more people die in Syria? To let a tyrant proceed with mass murder?
Unfortunately, as we go to press, President Obama seems disinclined to arm the rebels or use U.S. airpower to stop Assad. Fortunately, other politicians seem to be trying to convince him. Recently, as reports circulated that Syrian forces were massing outside the rebel stronghold of Homs, John McCain went on CBS to make the case for arming the rebels. During the interview, anchor Scott Pelley confronted him with what is really the central moral question of this entire episode: “Senator,” he asked, “why should the United States have a role? Why is this our problem, if you will?” McCain responded, in part: “Here is an unchecked massacre using artillery, tanks, and [the] most horrible means. ... It’s the same rationale why we went into Bosnia. It’s the same reason why we went to Kosovo. It’s the same reason why we involved ourselves in other parts of the world on behalf of people who can’t help themselves. And that’s a role and a mission and a tradition of the United States of America.” McCain is certainly no liberal. Yet, on the issue of Syria, he has found his way to a liberal, compassionate position—that we must do what we can to stop mass slaughter—while President Obama, so far, has not.
This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.