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September 7, 2013

History will tell if Syria was worth it

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — When asking whether a particular war is justified, the answer is usually a matter of perspective. For most of those Syrian citizens who’ve faced violent oppression from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad for the past two years, that answer has become a resounding “yes.”

From Assad’s perspective, the war is justified too. After all, these people in 2011 had dared to speak out against his rule. When Assad’s father, Hafez, faced similar dissent while running the country in the early 1980s, a bloody, merciless crackdown usually did the trick.

For the Alawite minority in Syria, who comprise barely 10 percent of Syria’s population and follow the same offshoot of Shia Islam as the Assads, the war is justified as well – as a matter of survival. The Assad family, like the post-World War I French colonial government, used the Alawites as a wedge to divide and control the country. The bitterness and animosity built up over the decades between Syria’s Alawites and the rest of its population makes the threat of post-Assad ethnic cleansing a looming concern. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see present-day Latakia Province, comprising much of what was called the “Alawite State” by the French colonial regime, make a push to secede from a post-Assad Syria.

From President Barack Obama’s point of view, some sort of military action is justified. His critics like to compare Obama’s efforts to intervene in Syria with the events of 2003, when President George W. Bush attacked Iraq. But Obama isn’t talking about starting a war; Syria is already at war. Nor does Obama appear interested in anything similar to the 200,000-strong force Bush sent to occupy Iraq in a long, nation-building campaign that most today would agree was mishandled.

The question, as always with warfare, is whether the risk-to-benefit ratio of intervening in Syria is preferable to that of staying put. But when mulling the range of possible outcomes in the face of war, we tend to ignore those that don’t fall in line with our predilections. Those who argue against a Syria intervention for fear of armed Islamists filling a post-Assad power vacuum, for example, are implying that armed Islamists haven’t already been gaining power in Syria since 2011 while the U.S. has turned a blind eye.

Syria’s civil war has in fact been a magnet for violent extremism, and nearly everyone would agree that the ideal scenario would see the war end as soon as possible, with a minimum of bloodshed. It’s similar to the situation Libya faced in 2011, when an fading dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, wouldn’t leave until he was literally dragged from power kicking and screaming.

Libya, however, was a unique case. Facing few genuine military threats from his neighbors, Gadhafi had kept Libya’s armed forces in a deliberately weakened state since the 1980s, fearing a coup like the one he rode to power as a young officer in 1969. Libya’s population, despite its regional rivalries, is 93 percent Sunni Muslim and much more homogenous than that of Syria. Most Libyans rallied around the idea of overthrowing Gadhafi, who faced defections even among his senior officers and could only rely on two loyalist army divisions – a little more than 10,000 men. Libya was ripe for revolution, and its rebel fighters could do the job on their own for the most part, with only a modicum of U.S. support.

Syria, by contrast, has maintained a strong military for decades to counterbalance its powerful neighbors, in particular Israel. The Assad family has maintained a detente with Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War with a peace-through-strength policy. And Assad’s loyalists, predictably, have a remarkably outsized influence in the armed forces; by some estimates, about 70 percent of Syria’s 200,000 army regulars and 80 percent of the army’s officers are Alawites.

Obama doesn’t seem worried about Assad’s strength. This could be, as his administration insists, because Obama isn’t pursuing regime change in Syria, only a punitive measure in response to Assad’s chemical gas attacks against civilians. But it would be odd for Obama to seek authorization for air and naval attacks on Syria and then settle for half a loaf. It’s more likely that a U.S.-led bombing campaign will be conducted in concert with rebel fighters advancing on the ground. Remember the Libyan campaign, which began as a no-fly zone for the immediate purpose of protecting civilians but ended with NATO supporting rebel offensives — perhaps in the process helping Libya avoid the sort of ugly, protracted bloodbath Syria has become.

But Syria, of course, isn’t Libya, and no two countries are the same. And as is the case with foreign policy throughout much of U.S. history, the ends will determine whether the means was justified. The younger Bush’s war in Iraq, like Vietnam, only became unpopular once it was clear that the war was turning out poorly. Only time will tell whether the sort of peace Obama can bring to Syria is worth the trouble — and whether the effort will enhance or tarnish his legacy.

Justin Vernold is a copy editor for The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com.