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Intervention In Syria is a Moral and Human Imperative

This is a contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.

This symposium was convened to consider the question of what the United States should do about the crisis in Syria. And yet, most of the contributions have been about a narrower concern: what the U.S. can do. It is a sign that uppermost in the minds of most Americans are the limits of American power. Certainly they are uppermost in President Obama’s mind.

But what I can’t stop thinking about are the consequences of allowing the Assad regime to prevail in Syria. I cannot help but remember what Saddam Hussein did in March and April of 1991, when an Allied coalition many hundreds of thousands strong sat by and watched while his elite Republican Guard killed around 200,000 people from among the millions who had dared to rebel against him. They are still sorting through the more than 100 mass graves dating back to those years inside post-2003 Iraq.

I don’t really think there is any kind of a reasonable argument against intervention in Syria. Quite the opposite: There is a moral and a human imperative to act that is larger than any nation’s interests and larger than any strategic calculation. That is so obvious it is an embarrassment to have to say it. This is how I thought about intervention in Iraq 20 years ago and it is how I think about what needs to be done in Syria today.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The Syrian “spring” has turned into a civil war being slugged out in urban neighborhoods diffusely spread out across the land. In other words, it is a battle that, without external intervention, can only end in Assad’s survival, since his confessionally structured armed forces think they have everything to lose by abandoning him.

And Assad’s survival—if Saddam Hussein’s murderous rampage in 1991 is any indication—will without a shadow of a doubt translate into hundreds of thousands of Syrian dead, mostly butchered after his victory has been assured. The comparison comes to mind because the two Ba’thi regimes of Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad bear an unmistakable resemblance—they are mirror images of one another, one might say. Both are minority dominated, single party regimes originating in the same quasi-fascist pan-Arab ideology built on the principle that any form of disagreement is an act of “betrayal” to the “revolution.”

So far, in the current conflict, fewer than 10,000 Syrians have been killed by their own regime’s tanks and guns. Or so we are told. No one knows what the real numbers are—any more than we know exactly how many died south of Baghdad in 1991. Authoritarian regimes make it impossible to know the truth of such matters. Exact numbers may elude us but the scale of the looming catastrophe must not be wished away. Insofar as anything can be known in this world, let it be said that we know that civilian casualties in Syria will be massive if all we do is wring our hands and hope for a change in heart through diplomacy and sanctions.  

So what should be done? We are told the Pentagon is already drawing up secret contingency plans for intervention. But these are likely hypothetical exercises, war planning “what if” scenarios—the kind of games that war planners constantly draw up as educational aides. What we need instead are plans that we can act on. Several things can start to happen more or less immediately.

First, the United States should convene an emergency summit of Turkey and the Arab Gulf countries (under the auspices of the Arab League or not) along with itself and the EU. The purpose of the summit should be to bless the establishment of a safe-haven area inside Syrian territory policed by Turkish troops, funded by Arab countries, and blessed by as many countries as are willing to come on board. Turkish troops should then enter that predetermined safe haven—having announced their intention to the Syrians in advance—and proceed to welcome into it Syrian refugees and members and organizations of the Syrian opposition. Of course, Turkey and its allies would have to prevent any Syrian attempt to challenge their entry, shooting from the air and ground wherever necessary. Finally, the Arab countries funding this effort should then attempt, with Turkish and U.S. help, to forge a workable transitional Syrian government capable of replacing the Assad regime.

Washington is right to be chastened after its scathing experience in Iraq this past decade. But it also ought to be motivated by that earlier disaster in Iraq, in which so many innocent Iraqis perished while the United States stood by and watched. Syria in 2012 is another Iraq of 1991 just waiting to happen. No one can say he did not know. 

Kanan Makiya is the author of The Republic of Fear and the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University.