A history lesson for US hawks circling Syria's complex war

A negotiated solution, however unpalatable, is still the only acceptable way out of the Syrian crisis.

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After Kofi Annan's resignation as the United Nations' envoy for Syria, the hawks are circling. In the US, major media outlets, former government officials and commentators are calling on the Obama administration to get off the fence and forcefully intervene. Before the clamour drowns out reason, a few words of caution are in order.

Serious questions must be addressed by those who call for intervention. What kind of intervention do they envision? On whose behalf will they intervene? And what will be the consequences?

This is not Libya, despite Senator John McCain's tendency towards facile comparisons. The US can bomb the country, and even establish a no-fly zone, but as Mr Annan pointed out in an article in The Financial Times, there is no military solution to the conflict. Increased violence will only beget more violence threatening a "conflagration ... in the region that could affect the rest of the world".

The Syrian military is more advanced than Libya's. Even after defections, the core is made up of loyalists. What is taking place is nearly a full civil war, with clear sectarian overtones. If faced with no option but to fight for survival, supporters of the regime will continue to fight and there will be more casualties.

Unlike in Libya, the Syrian regime has allies who see their interests directly threatened in this conflict. Russians, Iranians and Lebanon's Hizbollah all have a stake in the survival of the regime or in a new status quo in which their interests are protected. This does not mean Washington should surrender to their regional designs. But these actors must be factored into the discussion - those calling for intervention often fail to do so.

While Libya's conflict largely stayed inside the country, the spillover from Syria is already being felt throughout its unsettled neighbourhood. Lebanon feels the repercussions of sectarianism and fears for its internal stability. Syria's long-suffering Kurds have taken advantage of the weakening regime to advance their autonomy. Turkey and Iran, who fear Kurdish separatists, will oppose this move. Jordan, still reeling from the influx of Iraqi refugees, is bracing for Syrian refugees, and Jordanian forces have clashed with the Syrian military in recent days.

The Syrian opposition remains fragmented. This opposition, such as it is, would not be capable of governing and running the country if the regime and state institutions collapsed. On whose shoulders would the burden of state-building fall? Who would disarm the now-ubiquitous militias and root out the foreign extremist fighters? Who would organise the military and heal the sectarian wounds? And who would restore order, fight crime and stop feuds from escalating into bloodshed?

As was the case in Iraq, many of Syria's urban elite would leave the country if the regime collapsed. Many members of Syria's religious minority communities might flee because of the uncertainty and fear of retribution. This exodus would be devastating for the economy and the character of the country.

I remain a firm believer in the Powell doctrine, although the former US secretary of state has forgotten the principles he once favoured. Before the Iraq War, Colin Powell argued that military intervention in an uncertain conflict was a fool's errand. After years of folly in Afghanistan and Iraq, this lesson still has not been learnt.

Another argument in support of intervention is that the Obama administration risks losing a potential ally in the future Syrian government. But didn't we hear this same argument in Afghanistan and Iraq? Have we so quickly forgotten the twists and turns of Ahmed Chalabi and President Nouri Al Maliki? Or how the mujahideen in Afghanistan morphed into the Taliban?

This is not to say that nothing should be done. The regime in Damascus has lost legitimacy and is responsible for bringing this tragedy on itself and the country. The pretences of Arabism and resistance have been exposed as falsehoods, masking nothing more than a vain attempt to maintain power. The regime has delivered its own death sentence.

But as Mr Annan noted: "Only a serious negotiated political transition can hope to end the repressive rule of the past and avoid a future descent into a vengeful sectarian war." The reason Mr Annan failed was because the major players paid lip service to his efforts while they fuelled the conflict.

As Mr Annan is expected to be replaced by the former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, the choice is clear: either work together to unwind the conflict, or continue the descent into hell.

Instead of sabotaging a political solution, the US and Russia, and their allies, must commit to a process that makes a negotiated transition possible. This approach might not produce an outcome that pleases everyone, but the alternative would probably be worse.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa