FPI Fact Sheet: The Case for Intervention in Syria

March 15, 2012

The crisis in Syria has reached a moment of truth.  Since the anti-government protests began one year ago on March 15, 2011, Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have killed over 8,000 civilians, injured tens of thousands, and imprisoned thousands more, according to conservative estimates by the United Nations and human rights observers.  Although President Obama demanded that Assad “step aside” in August 2011, the current U.S. strategy of diplomacy and sanctions has failed to halt the dictator’s bloody war on his own people.  Unless the United States leads an international coalition to intervene on behalf of the embattled Syrian opposition, Assad’s security forces will only escalate their relentless slaughter of civilians, yielding catastrophic levels of violence that will likely spill beyond Syria’s borders and dangerously destabilize the Middle East.
Leading lawmakers are now advocating a more assertive U.S. strategy towards Syria.  In a joint statement on March 6, 2012, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (ID-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urged the United States and like-minded nations not only to indirectly intervene by giving secure communications equipment, self-defense aid, and other assistance to the Syrian opposition, but also to directly intervene by using airpower against the Assad regime’s military forces:

“Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but as Assad continues to intensify his assault, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives....  Therefore, if requested by the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the United States should help organize an international effort to protect civilian population centers in Syria through airstrikes on Assad’s forces.”

As the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) wrote in November 2011, Washington should pursue a wide range of options to help bring an end not only to the country’s growing bloodshed, but to the Assad regime itself.  In particular, the United States, in conjunction with like-minded nations, should immediately:

  • enhance cooperation with political opposition groups, and provide them with secure communication technologies and other support;
  •  initiate direct contact with the Free Syrian Army, and provide them with a full range of assistance, including self-defense aid;
  • establish safe zones for civilians within Syrian territory; and
  • use limited retaliatory airstrikes against select Syrian military targets in order to protect the safe zones.

As policymakers, lawmakers, and the American public debate how best to halt the Assad regime’s mounting atrocities against Syrian civilians, this FPI Fact Sheet debunks five common myths promoted by opponents of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria.


Myth #1:  The Assad regime’s actions against Syrians opposing its rule do not pose a threat to U.S. national security interests.

FACT:  America’s national security interests and values will be advanced by an end to the emerging civil war in Syria—and to the Assad regime itself.
For decades, the Assad regime has posed a grave threat to America’s national security interests.  It has been officially designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department since 1979.  It has longstanding relationships with the terror-sponsoring government of Iran, and with terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, that have helped to foment violence and instability against the United States and its allies in the Middle East.  It possesses chemical and biological weapons, and secretly built a nuclear reactor designed to produce weapons-usable nuclear material that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in September 2007.  In recent years, the Assad regime provided safe haven and direct support to foreign fighters, including militants allied with al-Qaeda, who transited through Syria to kill American troops in Iraq.  As Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in National Review Online:

"The Assad clan made a specialty of helping kill Americans in Iraq, while also threatening and often murdering any Lebanese leader who objected to Syrian domination.  It is Iran’s only Arab ally, and the armorer of Hezbollah....  There can be no doubt that the demise of the Assad regime is good for the United States and bad for our enemies.”

The collapse of the Assad regime therefore would deal a significant blow to Iran, and make continued Iranian support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas difficult.  Moreover, progress toward a functioning democracy in a post-Assad Syria could also help to breathe new life into the Iranian opposition’s efforts to challenge and overthrow Tehran’s clerical regime.
There are also strong moral imperatives for the United States to intervene in Syria.  The United Nations conservatively estimates that Syrian security forces and militia groups have killed over 8,000 civilians and injured tens of thousands more.  Human rights observers report that more than 37,000 civilians have been imprisoned, with over 617 detainees dying in captivity.  As Syrian forces pressed their indiscriminate offensive against the city of Homs, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said that “[c]ivilian losses have clearly been heavy,” adding:  “We continue to receive grisly reports of summary executions, arbitrary detentions, and torture.”  Indeed, a recent report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights bluntly accused the Assad regime of “crimes against humanity.”
In sum, the Assad regime’s escalating atrocities only reinforce the grave threat to U.S. national security interests that the Syrian government has posed through its partnership with Tehran, its support for international terrorism, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.  American interests will be well served by the fall of Assad.


Myth #2:  The current U.S. strategy of diplomacy and sanctions will work—the fall of the Assad regime is inevitable.

FACT:  President Obama has demanded that Assad step down, but his current strategy—which rejects military intervention in Syria—has not slowed the relentless mass murder of civilians, let alone ended the Assad regime.

In the early months of the Syrian uprising, U.S. officials denounced the Syrian government’s escalating use of indiscriminate force against civilian protestors, but hesitated to call for Assad’s resignation.  Indeed, senior Obama administration officials continued to cling to the notion for months that the Syrian dictator would emerge somehow as a “reformer”.  However, U.S. policy changed on August 18, 2011, when President Obama issued a statement demanding that Assad “step aside”.
Despite this statement, the Obama administration has been unwilling to support military means to ensure Assad’s ouster, instead relying on diplomatic and economic pressure.  In particular, the United States has imposed several rounds of Executive Branch sanctions against the Assad regime.  It supported an Arab League initiative to send observer teams to monitor and help halt the violence, but that initiative failed.  It then attempted to pressure Syria through the United Nations.  However, despite U.S., European, and Arab League calls for international resolve on Syria, Russian and Chinese vetoes prevented the U.N. Security Council from passing a resolution to condemn the Assad regime on October 4, 2011—and yet again on February 4, 2012. 
The Obama administration, however belatedly, has begun to explore ways to bypass Russian and Chinese obstructionism, and cooperate with like-minded governments in ad hoc coalitions.  As a first step, the United States attended the so-called “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia on February 24, 2012, where over 60 countries and organizations pledged to provide humanitarian support to the embattled Syrian opposition.  But that meeting was marked more by what the group was unwilling to do—rather than what was actually achieved—to assist the Syrian people.  At the meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, expressing frustration at the group’s reluctance to arm the Syrian opposition, said the group’s actions were “not enough” and asked:  “Is it justice to offer aid and the leave the Syrians to the killing machine?”
News reports suggest that senior U.S. government officials are now deliberating over the release of non-military aid, including humanitarian and secure communications assistance, to opposition groups inside and outside of Syria.  But for now, the Obama administration opposes the provision of military assistance to opposition groups or direct intervention.
Certain Arab countries, however, are now publicly calling for foreign intervention to halt the Assad regime’s bloodshed.  Some of them may decide to take matters into their own hands, and provide weapons and other lethal assistance to opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army.  News reports suggest that such assistance is already being provided, but it remains unclear whether significant arms transfers have yet occurred. 
Although the Obama administration may be tempted to stand back and let other nations lead in efforts to assist the opposition, such deferral is inconsistent with America’s responsibilities and equities in Syria, and will likely lead to additional chaos and uncertainty if the Assad regime falls.  While many of these nations are U.S. allies, they do not share all of our values or interests, and are thus likely to pursue their own agendas.  Leading from behind is not an option in Syria.


Myth #3:  U.S. intervention will only worsen the opposition’s chances for success in Syria.

FACT:  A U.S.-led intervention can tip the scales in favor of the embattled Syrian opposition, given that foreign powers—namely, Russia and Iran—are already intervening on behalf of the Assad regime.
Although the situation in Syria is already a crisis, it is certain to get worse in the absence of U.S.-led international involvement, with an increased likelihood of protracted civil war, civilian casualties, regional instability, and dangerous uncertainties if the Assad regime falls.  As Michael Weiss and Ilhan Tanir of the Henry Jackson Society write:

“If a protracted war between Assad’s forces and the Syrian rebels persists, as the current policy of passivity indicates it will, and the death toll in Syria rises, what proposals are on offer for ensuring that the regional conflagration promised as a result of intervention doesn’t occur as a result of non-intervention?”

Foreign powers have already moved to support the Assad regime.  As Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote, “the longer Obama waits and the deeper the humanitarian crisis worsens, the more likely it becomes that other actors will tip the balance in Syria.”  Russia—which, along with China, has twice vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions to condemn the Syrian government’s egregious human rights violations—is continuing to sell arms to the Assad regime despite international protestations.  Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed that his country’s arms sales will not affect the crisis in Syria, it’s apparent that the Moscow’s continued diplomatic and military support is increasing Assad’s resolve.
In addition, Iran—the Assad regime’s closest ally in the region—is directly intervening in Syria.  As the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick and Liz Sly recently reported:

“The U.S. intelligence assessments are in line with recent reports by Syrian rebels, who say Iran’s involvement in the crackdown has escalated. Opposition leaders, citing high-ranking defectors from the Syrian military, say Iran has dispatched hundreds of advisers, security officials and intelligence operatives to Syria, along with weapons, money and electronic surveillance equipment.”

In particular, news reports suggest that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as Hezbollah, are operating within Syria, and assisting the Assad regime’s efforts to crush the opposition.
Yet if the United States leads an international coalition to intervene, it will greatly improve its ability to positively influence events and shape the outcome in Syria.  Indeed, U.S. military leaders and outside experts recognize that foreign arms assistance to—and direct intervention on behalf of—the opposition could prove decisive.  During a recent Senate hearing, Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe (SACEUR), told lawmakers that military assistance to the Syrian opposition could hasten the end of the Assad regime.  Moreover, as Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently wrote, “Direct international military intervention could have a decisive impact on the situation in Syria, as it did in Libya” last year.


Myth #4:  The Syrian opposition is disorganized and dominated by extremists, including Islamists.

FACT:  Opposition groups are becoming increasingly organized and are not dominated by extremists—rather, what unites them is a desire to protect civilians from slaughter, end the Assad regime, and realize the Syrian people’s aspirations for self-determination.
In recent months, Syrian opposition groups have taken positive steps to improve their organizational and international legitimacy.  Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on February 24, 2012, that participants of the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia now view leading opposition groups to be a “leading legitimate representative” of the Syrian people. 
As locally-organized groups within Syria are standing up to the Assad regime’s security forces and militias in an effort to protect beleaguered civilians, they are finding ways and to evade the government’s attempts to intercept or cut off their communications, and better coordinate their activities with the Free Syrian Army’s leaders and other groups.  Armed opposition within Syria is estimated to be as large 50,000 people or more—many of whom are defectors from the Syrian military. 
Although Syrian opposition groups are improving their respective abilities to coordinate, they will greatly benefit from sustained international assistance.  Senators McCain, Lieberman, and Graham have urged the United States and like-minded nations to provide the Syrian opposition with material assistance, and help them organize “into a more cohesive and effective force that can put an end to the bloodshed and force Assad and his loyalists to leave power, which has been the goal of United States policy since August 2011.”
Allegations that extremists currently dominate the ranks of the Syrian opposition are false—and play into the Assad regime’s propaganda.  However, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda may attempt to capitalize on the Syrian opposition’s continuing struggle against the Assad regime, especially if the United States and like-minded nations fail to act.  As Senator McCain said in a floor speech on March 6, 2012:

“The surest way for Al-Qaeda to gain a foothold in Syria is for us to turn our backs on those brave Syrians who are fighting to defend themselves. After all, Sunni Iraqis were willing to ally with Al-Qaeda when they felt desperate enough. But when America gave them a better alternative, they turned their guns on Al-Qaeda. Why should it be different in Syria?”

For the United States, the importance of aiding and developing ties with Syrian opposition groups cannot be understated.  As Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War observed:  “As the militias continue to face overwhelming regime firepower the likelihood of their radicalization may increase….  Developing relations with armed opposition leaders and recognizing specific rebel organizations may help to deter this dangerous trend.”  Indeed, by engaging with—and materially supporting—the opposition, Washington can help to shape their agenda, and build relations with the potential future leaders of Syria. 
The aftermath of the conflict in Libya is instructive.  Due in part to the NATO-led coalition’s unwillingness to put “boots on the ground,” the United States reduced itself to the role of bystander as certain Libyan militias—which were backed by a variety of countries and promoting a range of ideological views—pursued their own agendas.  Given Syria’s strategic location and the impact that a drawn-out and chaotic civil war could have on its neighbors, including Lebanon and Iraq, it is imperative that the United States and its allies be involved in shaping the post-conflict environment more than was the case in Libya.  As Radwan Ziadeh, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, wrote in the Financial Times on February 14, 2012:

“If the United States does successfully build a partnership with Syria’s democratic opposition right now, at its time of greatest need, it will have earned a steadfast regional ally for the long-term.  Indeed, Syria’s political future, and its future alliances, are currently up for grabs.  In that way, there are important strategic, as well as humanitarian, issues at stake.  Washington ought to take the opportunity to build a bridge to the Syrian people and encourage their democratic inclinations.” 


Myth #5:  The Assad regime’s military forces and air defenses are more capable than the Qaddafi regime’s, and will make a U.S.-led intervention on behalf of the Syrian opposition too difficult.

FACT:  The United States is fully capable of degrading and defeating Syria’s military forces and air defenses—just as it did with Libya’s.  But it is imperative that the White House proactively persuade Congress and the American people of the strategic and moral imperatives of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria.
Skeptics of a U.S.-led intervention often cite the size of the Assad regime’s military forces, which are claimed to be as large as 295,000 active duty personnel, and are believed to be more capable than the Qaddafi regime’s forces, which numbered as high as 80,000 personnel.  Yet the Syrian military has not been involved in a serious military conflict since the 1970s and 1980s, and much of its equipment is antiquated and poorly maintained.  In 1982, the Israeli Air Force scored  stunning victories over Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley, destroying with minimal losses 19 Syrian surface-to-air defense batteries and radar sites, and downing over 80 Syrian Air Force fighters and aircraft.  In recent years, Israel has breached Syrian air defenses on several occasions, raising questions about how capable the Syrian air defense system actually is.  The Syrian military’s performance over the last year—in particular, its challenges in quelling increasingly assertive and resistant members of the armed opposition who typically wield only light weapons—also suggests that Syria’s capabilities may be less extensive than many opponents of intervention often claim. 
In addition, the Syrian military has already suffered significant defections, as many thousands of personnel have abandoned their posts, with many of them joining the Free Syrian Army and associated groups.  In Libya, direct intervention by the NATO-led coalition encouraged mass defections from—and the eventual collapse of—the Qaddafi regime’s military.  If a U.S.-led international coalition credibly signals that it is similarly preparing to directly intervene in Syria, then the rate of defections from the Assad regime’s military is likely also to dramatically increase.
Skeptics also cite the alleged difficulty of overcoming the Assad regime’s air defenses.  However, the Pentagon’s military and civilians leaders have said the U.S. Armed Forces are certainly capable of severely degrading and defeating not only the Syrian government’s military forces, but also its air defenses, as part of a direct intervention on behalf of the opposition.  In a March 7, 2012, interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Senator McCain responded more bluntly:

“We spend almost $1 trillion a year on the military, Anderson.  And we can't take out air defenses of Syria?  That is a horrific waste of the taxpayers’ dollars.  Every time that one of these crises happens, and I remember well, under President Clinton, Bosnia and Kosovo, we can't do it.  They can always think of reasons not to do it.  We led from behind in Libya.  We were the last ones on board.”

Nonetheless, it appears that the Pentagon is internally examining options for intervention in Syria.  Indeed, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Obama administration is “reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support efforts to protect the Syrian people, end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options if necessary.”  In addition, General Martin Dempsey added that the military planners have not only looked at operations, “including delivering humanitarian relief, imposing a no-fly zone, conducting maritime interdiction, establishing humanitarian corridors, and executing limited air strikes” at the so-called “commander’s estimate level of detail,” but also briefed the National Security Council.

If and when the Obama administration decides to intervene more directly against the Assad regime, it is critical that it learn lessons from the 2011 intervention in Libya, and make every effort to persuade members of Congress and the American people of the strategic and moral imperatives of U.S. military involvement in Syria.  Failure to do so would likely lead to a repeat of the crisis between the Executive and Legislative Branches  that occurred during the NATO-led intervention in Libya last year.


President Obama’s March 2011 decision to intervene in Libya was controversial in part because he justified it mainly on humanitarian—rather than strategic—grounds.  Sensible people certainly can disagree about whether America has the financial and other resources to intervene in response to every humanitarian catastrophe.  In the case of Syria, however, there are also powerful strategic imperatives for the United States to intervene.

Contrary to the claims of those who oppose a U.S.-led intervention in Syria, the United States has viable options for decisively responding, individually and in concert with others, to the Assad regime’s continuing assault on the Syrian people.  Indeed, Syrian opposition groups are now increasingly demanding international action to halt further bloodshed.

Over the last year, the Syrian people have shown astonishing fortitude in the face of their government’s relentless onslaught.  Although the Assad regime is now trying to murder its way back to internal “stability,” its aggression will accomplish the opposite:  Syria will slide further towards civil war, thousands more will die, and the international community will be forced to pick up the pieces—except Syria’s ethnic and religious mosaic by then will likely be torn apart, severely decreasing the likelihood of a democratic, stable, post-Assad Syria.  International intervention led by the United States now offers Syria, the Middle East, and the West the prospect of a much better outcome.

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