Could intervention have tilted the balance in Syria?


Today, five years later, it’s easy to forget that Syria’s revolution started off amid the optimism of the Arab Spring. The first protests against Assad’s dictatorship were peaceful: Demonstrators were demanding democracy, not rule by Al Qaeda, Caryl Churchill writes for Foreign Policy:

And Daraya was one of the birthplaces of this movement. In the revolution’s early stages it was the home of the activist Ghiyath Matar (right), known as “Little Gandhi” for his quixotic embrace of non-violence. When Assad’s soldiers arrived to crush local protests, he greeted them with flowers and water. They responded by torturing him to death. His corpse was later returned to his family with its throat torn out. The country’s downward spiral began.

More than five years into the conflict that has shattered his country, displaced half its population and killed hundreds of thousands of people, Mr. Assad denies any responsibility for the destruction, The New York Times reports. That insistence, which he has clung to for years even as his forces hit civilians with gas attacks and barrel bombs, is a major impediment to sustaining a cease-fire, let alone ending the war.

“The problem is that he cannot win, and at the same time he is not losing,” said Samir Altaqi, the director of the Orient Research Center in Dubai. “But at the end of the day, what is left of Syria? He is still the leader, but he lost the state.”

John F. Kerry, Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus and Leon E. Panetta, among others, pushed President Obama to use U.S. air power or stepped-up support for rebels to tilt the balance of the war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, thereby making possible a political settlement favorable to the United States and its allies, The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl writes:

Obama repeatedly refused. There was no way to get involved, he said, without starting the U.S. military down a slippery slope that would lead to another quagmire, like Iraq or Afghanistan. Anyway, he said, U.S. intervention would only worsen the war, encourage extremism and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

All those bad things happened in the absence of American action. And now Putin has proved that the concept Obama rejected — that a limited use of force could change the political outcome, without large costs — was right all along. The difference, of course, is that the result has been a victory for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, at the expense of the United States and its Arab, Israeli and Turkish friends.

By way of contrast, it was precisely such a strategically targeted intervention by the US in the shape of Plan Colombia that proved decisive in tilting the balance of forces against narco-traffickers and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ultimately forcing the latter to negotiate a peace agreement, the Post’s Nick Miroff writes.

As the conflict wore on, the FARC leaders also became their own worst enemies, he adds:

Unlike traditional leftist guerrilla movements in Latin America, the self-financed guerrillas seemed to grow increasingly less concerned with the political grunt work of winning hearts and minds, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. The rebels kidnapped and killed civilians, carried out indiscriminate bombing attacks and extorted small businesses in the areas under their influence.

“They developed one of the worst human rights records among leftists in Latin America,” Isacson said. “They disregarded public opinion to the detriment of their own self-interest.”


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