One of the major topics of last night’s presidential debate was the ongoing civil war in Syria and whether the United States should get involved. Intervening in the civil war is a difficult decision. There is the chance that toppling the Assad regime could destabilize the Middle East even further, at a point when the Arab Spring is settling down. Like all uprisings, it is also difficult to determine what sort of government will result from overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. However, the civil war in Syria has grown increasingly violent over the past months. This summer, it has also begun spreading beyond the country’s borders. Shells fired from Syria have landed in both neighboring countries of Turkey and Lebanon in the past month. With the conflict becoming more intense, it is certainly time to seriously consider intervening in the civil war. And it won’t be as bad as most people think.
The Syrian Civil War began in March last year during the Arab Spring last year and started as one of the many democratic protests and uprisings. While the civil war has been going on for over one and a half years, the opposition to Assad’s regime has generally been part of the Free Syrian Army. The FSA was formed in June 2011 by defecting army officers and has been fighting Assad’s government since. The FSA has support from the Syrian National Council, a political organization in Turkey dedicated to a democratic transition in Syria. The situation is very similar to the Libyan Civil War prior to NATO involvement. Additionally, the Syrian rebels, like those in Libya, are requesting the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria. Considering these circumstances, an intervention in Syria would be likely to go at least as well as the intervention in Libya. the United States would have support from a pre-existing rebel group, and would at first require minimal military involvement. In fact, the political situation in Syria is better than it was in Libya. In Libya, the politics of the revolution was made murky by the numerous tribal militias in the country. There is no such division in Syria, where most of the opposition is part of the Free Syrian Army.
Not only would intervention be supported from inside the country, it would also have international support and justification. Several Syrian shells have landed across the border in Turkey. The most recent incident occurred yesterday, when a Syrian anti-aircraft shell hit a healthcare center in the Turkish border province of Hatay. These incidents have created a volatile situation on the border between Turkey and Syria as Turkey responds to the Syrian attacks. These attacks, with civilians in not just Syria but Turkey as well being killed, make it harder and harder to justify non-intervention. The attacks also create increasing justification. Turkey is a member of NATO, and so NATO could be considered not only justified but obligated to come to Turkey’s aid and intervene to take down the Assad regime. In the case of a NATO intervention, the United States would not have to play a leading role in the operations at all. We didn’t play a leading role in the NATO action in Libya; that was taken up by France. During the Libyan revolution, the United States deployed no ground forces. While military support of the Syrian rebels would probably require a greater commitment, it would most likely have full international support from our European allies.
Aside from all this, most arguments against intervention in Syria involve comparisons to Iraq during the past decade and how Syria could end up in a similar situation with fears of Iran gaining more influence in the region. However, these assertions are entirely false. The factors that led to Iraq’s turmoil post-Saddam are very dissimilar to the factors that are present in Syria. First off, the potential for ethnic or sectarian conflict is not very present in Syria. In Iraq, the United States deposed a Sunni dictator in a Sunni majority country, and much of the conflict was perpetrated the newly empowered Shia minority. The situation in Syria is almost completely reversed. Bashar al-Assad and much of the Syrian government is part of the minority Alawite branch of Shia Islam. The Alawites only comprise ten percent of the Syrian population, while the country is majority Sunni at 74 percent. The Assad regime has highly favoured the Alawites at the expense of the Sunnis and other groups in Syria, so removing the regime would allow a much greater possibility for religious freedom for all the Syrian people. Additionally, the Assad government is in large part the only ally of Iran in the Middle East. Removing Assad and promoting democracy in Syria would greatly lessen Iran’s power projection capability. Intervention would also greatly reduce the influence of terrorist group Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon as the Assad government also supports them.
All these arguments lend support for a United States and NATO intervention in the Syrian Civil War. However, there are still some problems that would need to be addressed. The issue of the Syrian Kurds and their future, plus any knock-on effects on the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, would have to be dealt with. There would also likely be a period of greater instability in Syria in the short-term. But this is to be expected. Transitioning from a dictatorial regime to a democratic state is always going to be rough as the democratic institutions are built up and tested. But on the whole, the circumstances for intervention are much more favorable than they were when the United States invaded Iraq and are arguably better than in Libya. Overthrowing Assad would be a good outcome for both the Syrian people and the entire Middle Eastern region.