The first two installments of this series have explored the difficulties of successful intervention in Syria from the air and ground. Yet, without foreign intervention, further violence and civil war are likely to ensue, leading to external spillover effects including refugees and a region more awash in arms and unaccountable paramilitaries.  

Proxies and Protracted Civil War

Prolonged civil war would likely generate stronger calls for intervention, either because of mounting humanitarian costs or growing anger over the inability or unwillingness of Syria’s remaining friends to pressure the Assad regime into an adequate solution for the problem. Even if major regime figures departed or defected, sectarian fears would, at the very least, likely still leave significant portions of the security services intact.

For a decade, Iran has bled the resources of America and its allies by taking advantage of their invasions of or interventions in foreign states. When America invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s Qods Force came to support militants against its soldiers. When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, Iran’s preferred client in Lebanon, Hezbollah, inflicted serious pain on Israeli forces. Should the West or Arab states intervene in Syria, policymakers should automatically assume a similar modus operandi. In fact, since Syria would be a much more permissive environment than either post-war Iraq or Afghanistan (i.e., without U.S. occupation forces, and ruled by a friendly, if embattled, government), Iran would not have much trouble flooding Syria with weapons and personnel capable of inflicting significant harm on Iran’s enemies.

The United States does not have a compelling strategic interest in rapidly hastening the downfall of Assad commensurate with the risks and resources that would entail. The local Syrian forces are, in all reasonable likelihood, unable to hold enough ground to make even holding a safe zone a feasible option without major foreign ground support. In addition to making the safe zone a far more risky proposition than it has been previously advertised as, it also seriously calls into question the ability of a safe zone to hasten the downfall of Assad, or, for that matter, significantly protect Syrian civilians living outside the safe zone.

 If Assad’s security forces fall, it will ultimately be because of major and sustained ground combat directed against a military force significantly more competent than Gaddafi’s, led by a regime with significantly more indulgent and powerful foreign friends than Libya’s regime enjoyed in its last days. The costs of that sustained combat, or even the provision of air support to it, would be open-ended, and it is difficult to see how foreign intervention would not result in an Iranian proxy war being waged against the intervening forces or even their home countries as Tehran tries to ameliorate the loss of a critical partner and logistical conduit for regional operations.

The much more unpleasant strategic reality is that, whether foreign forces intervene or not, the United States receives little reward from hastening Assad’s downfall. An embattled Assad imposes just the same limitations on Syrian and Iranian threats to U.S. interests. Resources will have to be diverted from the proxies Iran supports through Syria to Syria itself as Iran tries to maintain its host’s viability.

The loss of Assad’s regime would mean a rapid retrenchment in Iranian support, for sure, but this would likely be replaced by a proxy campaign against Syria’s new government and its foreign backers, or a redeployment of IRGC/QF assets to other theaters, probably against the U.S (if not both).

Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.

The consequences of a protracted civil war in Syria are likely to be enormously costly, especially in humanitarian terms. However, it is unclear what, short of a miraculous agreement between the opposition and its butchers in Damascus, would deliver a worthwhile humanitarian outcome. Ultimately, many of the potential pitfalls and horrors of prolonged civil war – and even prolonged civil war itself – could still be the outcome of an intervention to topple Assad.

As in Iraq, the massacre and displacement of Shias and Kurds could be replaced or supplemented by the massacre and displacement of Sunnis and Christians. The much feared refugee outflows could still occur in the aftermath of a successful overflow of Assad, again, with perhaps a different ethnic composition. Syria’s neighbors could still likely be drawn into the power vacuum that would occur were the inchoate Syrian opposition forces to nominally assume responsibility for the country. Whether through civil war or through total overthrow of the regime, the erosion of Syria’s intelligence and security forces is likely to prompt jihadi activity within its borders.

All that said, the defining criteria for U.S. military involvement must be U.S. interests, and a vague notion of trying to stabilize the region with intervention simply will not do. Because the U.S. ability to influence actual events on the ground will be incredibly limited, it is a mug’s game to pretend the mere act of overthrowing Assad will give us substantial power in foreseeing and avoiding the worst consequences of conflict.

If the U.S. interest in Syria, as in the broader Middle East, includes counter-proliferation, undermining IRGC/QF activities and the actions of jihadists, there are potential contingencies for these scenarios. Ultimately, however, the U.S. must distinguish its interests from the various and disjointed goals advocated by most plans for intervention.

The options I sketch out will strike many as merely sitting on the sidelines and peripheral to the cause of bringing down Assad – which is fair, and also the point. If Syria is to have a civil war, the U.S. ought, for the most part, be sitting it out. There are constant exhortations that aid in a civil war, even when it leads to extreme gratitude, is easily transferable into geopolitical gratitude later on. But there is no guarantee “our” Syrians would win power without unacceptable degrees of cost or risk, and even if they did, the government they form is likely, like Libya’s, to be so weak as to be a potential liability rather than an international boon – and all this assumes our preferred faction wins the jockeying during or after the fall of Assad that determines which opposition faction gets to run the country anyway. When faced with the choice between assuming unacceptable risk or making a grand scheme dependent on events largely out of our control, nothing beyond limited means for limited ends is an responsible use of U.S. power.

Daniel Trombly is writer on international affairs and strategy. This essay is based on a longer piece at his blog Slouching Towards Columbia.