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02.09.12

Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria? Experts Weigh In

Forces backing the Assad regime have deployed brutal tactics to suppress a popular uprising in Syria. Policy experts tell The Daily Beast what the U.S. should—or shouldn't—do next. Plus, shocking images and videos from inside Syria.

Violence in Syria continued Wednesday as military forces and militias supporting President Bashar al-Assad continued their offensive against anti-regime protesters. Heavy shelling was seen for the fifth consecutive day in the western city of Homs, where civilians have said that indiscriminate shelling and roving government gunmen have claimed hundreds of lives.

The international community has been outraged but mostly impotent as reports of the carnage continue to mount, and frustrations have intensified since China and Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution Saturday that would have condemned the Syrian regime.

In his Tuesday briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney affirmed the United States’ commitment to ending violence in Syria but skillfully skirted specifics, saying, “We are going to work with—continue to work with international allies and partners, and with other friends of Syria—friends of the Syrian people to continue to pressure the Assad regime so that it ceases this reprehensible behavior.”

While outrage at Assad continues to grow in the United States, Britain, Turkey, and other nations, The Daily Beast asked foreign-policy experts what the U.S. should do next.

Mona Yacoubian
Senior Adviser, Middle East  
Henry L. Stimson Center

“Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t have many options on Syria. The country’s descent into civil war seems all but assured. At this point, the key issues revolve around humanitarian questions of preventing further loss of innocent civilian lives and the broader regional question of insulating Syria’s neighbors from spillover. Of those two, protection of civilians is the most challenging, with few, if any, options that don’t involve some degree of military action. Perhaps the most important thing the U.S. can do is spearhead a contact group on Syria and use this as a vehicle to further increase pressure on the regime, both economically and diplomatically. The hope is that such pressures will force a tipping point where key pillars of regime support—the military and the business class—will finally turn against the regime and precipitate its collapse. Unfortunately, as violence deepens, the regime’s collapse is not any guarantee against civil war, but does provide more opportunities for intervention.”

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Shadi Hamid
Director of Research  
Brookings Doha Center

“I think the United States has to think seriously about military options here. We’ve gotten to that point and we have to start the conversation. That doesn’t mean there should be intervention tomorrow, but it does mean the conversations have to start. The Syrian opposition has grown more militarized. They have chosen the route of military action against the Syrian government. They are not going to return to peaceful protest when their friends and family are being slaughtered. This has to have Arab and Muslim ownership if it is going to work, and that means Turkey and Qatar have to be seriously involved. The longer we wait, the more this spirals out of control. The killing has intensified over the past week. It has gotten worse, not better. So we don’t have the time to wait in luxury and make the perfect choice here. The U.S. should have serious discussions with Britain, France, Turkey, and Qatar to discuss which military options are viable, and if there is a consensus among those five major powers, they should begin coordinating with the Syrian opposition. In an ideal situation, if we did have the luxury of waiting, I would say wait until the Syrian opposition is more unified and more prepared, but I just don’t know how long that is going to take. If we’re not planning for contingencies now, that’s simply irresponsible.”

Ed Husain
Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations

“The best strategy for the U.S. is a degree of removal from the Syrian conflict, and allowing Europeans to lead. From Yemen to Egypt the United States is sucked into domestic politics of Arab countries. The British government could demonstrate its independence from U.S. foreign policy by trying to broker a peaceful negotiation of the current impasse in Syria. Britain has ties to Syria’s ruling family that cannot be rivaled by any other country, and yet the United Kingdom has toed the U.S.-led line in public and private. Last year, when the U.S. called for Assad to step down, Britain did the same within hours. Last week, when the U.S. ambassador was withdrawn from Damascus, the British duly followed. Such obedient conduct does not bring ‘value-added’ to the U.S.-U.K. relationship, nor help improve matters on the ground in Syria. Instead, British diplomats and parliamentarians should use their special relationship with Syria to help placate Russian and Chinese influences. Britain should be America’s ‘advance team’ in finding creative, smart diplomatic answers and holding Assad to account through his familial ties to Britain. It’s impossible to tell whether Assad will fall or not, but Britain should be a lever of influence on Assad, and Baathist successors in Damascus. I have heard only too often from British government officials that the mistakes in Iraq of ‘de-Baathification,’ or forcefully dissolving the Baath party’s control of Iraq, were the ‘fault of the Americans.’ Ten years later, that same mistake is about to be repeated again in Damascus in the absence of any real thinking on how to maintain the state in Syria but remove the regime. Will Britain rise to the task?”

Bruce Jentleson
Former senior adviser, State Department (2009–11)
Professor, Duke University

“We need to keep the pressure on. I think we should continue to do as much short of military intervention as we can. We should be providing relief and other aid directly and indirectly through countries like Turkey. All of that keeps the pressure on. Flood the zone, do as many things as we can. I don’t think we should intervene militarily without an international coalition. And keep working through the U.N. You have Qatar, which has been out there even further than anybody else. The Saudis have been supportive. The U.A.E. and Qatar have been supportive in the Arab world. You have all sorts of movers in the Arab world, and it’s important when you’re doing these sorts of things that it doesn’t become branded as a U.S. effort. And so in addition to the pressure in the U.N. the third thing you have to do is find channels, groups within Syria, business elites and others that in the best of all worlds would have loved to see Assad stay in power. I think ultimately he will fall because internal support cracks at the highest levels. I don’t think he’s going to be brought down by the streets, and I don’t think there should be military intervention. I think the administration is looking for levers short of that because, realistically, it’s not even a moral question, but realistically, I don’t think it would even work yet.”

Danielle Pletka
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
American Enterprise Institute

“The administration has been so reactive, so profligate in its use of adjectives and reticent in its use of actual power, it is really—I would use the word 'disappointing,' except it's nothing but what I expect. But it has got to be crushingly disappointing to the people of Syria. Short of a direct military intervention, which I think is not what is necessary at this moment, we can help to create humanitarian corridors, we can offer to join the enforcement of a no-fly zone, we can help support the Free Syrian Army, we can bring together the opposition, and, rather than turning to them and saying, ‘Well, the ball is in your court,’ we can bring them together and actually facilitate their transition, their unity, their articulation of a transition plan, their articulation of principles for a government. And we can help them facilitate the creation of a new government that we can transfer allegiance to. None of these involve boots on the ground. If human-rights violations are important, then surely we should be doing more; if American strategic interests are important, then surely we should be doing more. This is a great strategic opportunity, it is a great humanitarian opportunity, and the United States is acting like we’re Belgium.”