Opponents of U.S. intervention in Syria are adept at citing the risks of a more aggressive U.S. effort to bring down the regime of Bashar Assad. Weapons given to rebel fighters might end up in the hands of extremists, the skeptics say. U.S. air attacks or the creation of a no-fly zone would be challenged by formidable air defenses.
Above all, say the anti-interventionists, direct or even indirect U.S. engagement in the fighting would make Syria an American problem.
These are serious objections, though we believe some of the risks, such as the spread of weapons to jihadists, can be mitigated, while others, such as the strength of Syrian air defenses, have been exaggerated. Our greater concern is about the side of the discussion critics of intervention usually leave out — which is the risks that are incurred by failing to intervene.
The most likely scenario is that Syria fractures along sectarian lines.
Such a splintering would almost certainly spread the sectarian warfare to Iraq and Lebanon, as it has to some extent already. That could cause the collapse of the Iraqi political system that was the legacy of the U.S. mission there. Chemical weapons stocks now controlled by the Assad regime would be up for grabs, probably forcing further interventions by Israel in order to prevent their acquisition by Hezbollah or al-Qaida. Jordan, the most fragile U.S. ally in the Middle East, could collapse under the weight of Syrian refugees. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have been imploring the Obama administration to take steps to end the war, could conclude that the United States is no longer a reliable ally.
Of course, some of these consequences may come about whatever the United States does. But the best way of preventing them is to quickly tip the military balance against the Assad regime — something that would probably require an air campaign as well as arms for the moderate opposition.
The Washington Post (May 9)