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.