The vigorous debate about whether an American-led military strike against Syria would be appropriate and effective is heartbreaking, for it is agonizing to watch as another important Arab country follows the self-destructive trajectory of others before it, such as Iraq and Libya. These countries failed to achieve their full potential, and instead allowed themselves to pursue cruel and criminal policies that led to their destruction at the hands of international armies that worked in conjunction with the country’s own people who had risen in revolt to overthrow their hated regimes. Syria seems destined to join that list, and helplessly watching this on television is painful beyond description. Only the pain of the Syrian people themselves is more acute than that of other Arabs who grieve for the combination of incompetence, cruelty and criminality that we have seen in Syria for so many years.
We have witnessed all this before, in Iraq and Libya, but also in different forms in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and other Arab countries whose immense human and natural wealth was squandered and stolen by corrupt military men who proved to be both fickle soldiers and lousy governors. The pinnacle of their stupidity and reckless irresponsibility was to carry out such cruel attacks against their own people, after mistreating them for decades, so that the citizenry rose up in revolt and foreign powers felt forced to intervene to bring an end to the cruelty and to the regimes themselves.
The broad lines of this legacy are being repeated in Syria, with only some minor differences in the details, along with one major strategic difference: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and perhaps some other groups will fight hard to keep President Bashar Assad’s regime in power, even if it only controls some isolated strips of land and a few cities and air bases. The consequences of attacking Syria, therefore, are far more substantial than was the case in bringing down, threatening or sanctioning Libya, Iraq, Sudan or even Iran.
We continue to witness the ripples of the Anglo-American-led war on Iraq a decade ago, especially in the form of a fractured and polarized Iraqi state, and organized Salafist militancy and terrorism (with Al-Qaeda links) that plague Iraq and other countries in the region, especially Syria and Lebanon. An American-led military strike against Syria would probably generate equally problematic consequences, including counterattacks by Syrians and various parties against targets from those countries that would join the assault on Syria.
It is also not clear that a few isolated, pinpoint punitive missile attacks against a handful of targets in Syria would have the intended effect of making the Assad regime change its tactics in attacking its own people in order to remain in power. Previous experiences around the region indicate that such punitive or deterrent strikes do not force any significant change in behavior by the target government. Only actions such as a ground invasion or the imposition of a no-fly zone achieve that aim, and there is no serious talk of those kinds of moves yet.
Foreign attacks against Assad without a firm U.N. Security Council mandate would likely make the Syrian regime more defiant and reckless, and the Russians more recalcitrant, because it would escalate accusations that the Assad regime has been the target of a foreign conspiracy to bring it down.
We will also once again – and rightly – hear many in the region ask why the West so forcefully – and rightly – enforces international norms in Syria, but winks at the colonization, annexations, sieges, mass incarcerations, use of banned munitions and other criminal deeds of the Israeli government?
So, a military attack against Syria will make many people and governments feel good about taking firm action to punish the Assad regime and deter it and others from using chemical weapons.
It should be clear, though, that any strikes now will likely have to be the first steps in a wider effort to bring down the Assad regime. This expanded campaign would likely include no-fly zones and significantly enhanced delivery of advanced weapons to the opposition forces, with the aim of militarily defeating the regime.
The problem with this scenario is that it opens up a wild set of possible post-Assad developments, given the scores of major but disunited armed opposition groups in the country with secular, nationalist and Islamist characters, and the sharp sectarian polarization that has occurred in the last 30 months of war.
A post-Assad transition 18 months ago could have been relatively smooth, but today it can only be chaotic, protracted, violent and ugly. It will also infect other countries around Syria, creating more refugees, terrorism, extremism and despair.
There are no easy answers in Syria, and no happy outcomes. The Syrian state has been disintegrating for the past 30 months. It has never shown any real signs of being able to reform itself under the Assad leadership. Thus, it has reached the current point of inevitable international and regional Arab action to smash it once and for all, with incalculable consequences to follow.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.