I have to give Bashar al-Assad some respect for doing something that nobody else could: He managed to unite Rand Paul, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Vladimir Putin on a serious issue. Those who watched the fourth GOP Presidential debate witnessed what is best described as a foreign-policy shotgun wedding between Rand and Trump, sparked by a mutual disdain for the interventionist views of Marco Rubio and his fellow Reagan-era neoconservatives, like Hillary Clinton.
How can America possibly justify allowing Assad, a dictator known for using chemical weapons against his own people, to remain in power? Doesn’t the world’s most powerful nation have a responsibility to ensure the Geneva Conventions are upheld? Given the Syrian refugee crisis, is it in our national interest to force a regime change and engage in state building? These are the questions at the heart of the debate on American foreign policy, and Syria in particular.
In the five years since the Syrian Civil War began, a quarter of a million people have been killed and nine million more displaced. Without delving too deeply into the politics of accommodating the refugees, a separate but related issue, it is clear that this has already become a humanitarian crisis which cannot be resolved until one party emerges victorious and implements a stable, functioning government. From a neoconservative perspective, this new government would ideally be a democracy that adheres to the rule of law with broad public support. This was also their goal when the United States armed an Afghan rebel group, which we now know as the Taliban, to fight against Soviet forces. With no reliable contingency plan in place, it is likely that Assad’s downfall would either force America to leave military security forces, as we did in Iraq, or lead to infighting amongst rebel factions in a similar way that the power struggle after the fall of the Iranian Pahlavi Shah eventually ceded power to the radical Ayatollah Khomeini. Ending this conflict quickly, as well as the Syrian refugee crisis, means there cannot be a second Syrian Civil War between rebel factions or a proxy war with Russia and Iran. The only way to do this is to allow Assad, with the backing of Russia and Iran, to win quickly and begin rebuilding the nation to help in the fight against ISIS, which is responsible for even more gruesome human rights violations, and which poses a greater risk to American security.
The “moderate” rebels that our neocons are so eager to arm have their own history of human rights violations severe enough to have the UN Security Council condemn the actions of both parties in February of 2014. The Human Rights Watch found that rebel opposition groups have targeted civilian areas with large concentrations of Christians and religious minorities. And any remaining doubt about just how “moderate” these rebels are should be put to rest by the UN investigation which, on December 13, 2013, found that opposition rebels used homemade chemical weapons against government forces. While neoconservatives refuse to tolerate Assad because of his use of chemical weapons, the great irony is that Assad’s systematic dismantling of its chemical arsenal may leave the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda linked opposition group, as the only force in the region with the ability to employ chemical weapons, granting them a major strategic advantage over Assad and other rebel factions.
The “moderate” rebels have even gone so far as to wage terror attacks on schools. Yes, that’s right: even after arming the Taliban in the 1980s had the disastrous consequence of those same weapons being turned on Americans, GOP frontrunners like Rubio want to repeat history with a group actively engaging in terrorism. And for what? Arming the Taliban at least made the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan so difficult that it essentially became the USSR’s version of Vietnam, which helped cripple the USSR. Little would be accomplished by arming rebel factions to fight Assad other than toppling one dictator who never posed much of a risk to America and rolling the dice for his replacement.
Forcing regime change cannot be done half-heartedly. If overthrowing Assad is in our national interest, America should send ground troops, occupy Syrian land, and maintain security forces while attempting to rebuild the nation, much like we did in Iraq. Another ground war in the Middle East would be a terrible idea, but anything short of that will be worse. Distributing more weapons in an already volatile region would leave the US vulnerable to having those same weapons used against us in the future if and when history repeats itself.
We still do not know what the full effects of such a war would be, how many lives would be lost, or if military intervention would lead to more anti-American sentiment. Not to mention, if our military were to get involved over human rights issues, we would also have to fight other nations in region, such as Qatar, which has enslaved millions of migrant immigrants in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. But as an American ally, Qatar does not face the same pressure to improve its human rights record, even from human rights activists. So yes, as the most powerful nation in the world, it would be nice if America could put an end to all human rights violations. But being the most powerful country doesn’t mean that it is all-powerful, and that is an important distinction for neoconservatives to remember, particularly as American dominance declines while power is diffused throughout the world. And the right time to impose our own morality on the rest of the world is certainly not when intervention will lengthen a bloody civil war that creates the chaos ISIS and extremism thrive on.
Even if it became clear that Assad could not provide stability in Syria, which would be the only pragmatic reason to justify removing him, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and the rest of the neoconservative movement must understand that the costs of intervening far outweigh the benefits. As long as Russia and Iran continue to support Assad, backing the rebels would essentially be fighting another Cold War style battle which would probably not have any respect for the lives of the Syrian people, and we have yet to see a realistic, detailed contingency plan from anyone, so toppling Assad could still have disastrous consequences.
The lack of a well-developed long-term plan for any American intervention in Syria should not be overlooked. While the Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria are often viewed as one of America’s top allies for providing ground troops in the fight against ISIS, their desire to develop an autonomous state of Kurdistan is at odds with the interests of other American allies in the region, including the governments of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, which all have large Kurdish populations, and which could both be further destabilized by the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Additionally, American support of the Kurds may test our alliance with the Turks and weaken their resolve in the fight against ISIS.
America can and should be a force for good in the world, but that does not mean choosing sides in another country’s civil war between two factions that are each guilty of war crimes. Even if the Syrian rebels proved to be a significantly better alternative to Assad, America’s foreign policy should still first be based on acting in its own national interests. In a region filled with anti-American sentiment, where instability and religious divisions have allowed radical groups to seize power, America’s top interest should be national security. Syrian refugees pose a relatively small risk to Americans’ safety, but even if they are banned from entering the country, that is at most a footnote in history books, and while dealing with the Central American refugee crisis, the US can take a more passive role with Syrian immigrants. In the short term, radical Islamic terrorism has proven that it thrives in politically unstable areas and failed states. Allowing Assad to maintain power, at least for now, will be the fastest way to end the civil war and the refugee crisis, and therefore to create more stability in the region to fight against ISIS; accomplishing this without using excessive American resources is an added bonus of this policy. In the long term, getting involved in another country’s civil war has the potential to create more anti-American sentiment by strengthening our reputation as an overbearing hegemon if our intervention does not result in a good outcome.
Republican neoconservatives may be quick to point to the Cold War success of the Reagan Doctrine, which essentially said that America’s mission was to promote freedom and democracy throughout the world. However, Reagan also made clear that the ultimate goal of this mission was to deter Soviet aggression, and ultimately to promote American interests. In Syria, democratization and American interests are at odds with each other, so the different sides of the debate on foreign policy are beginning to transcend party lines. Conservative politics has historically been built on the principle that the government should act in the best interest of its own people. Applying this to foreign policy means not attempting to democratize every country where there is an opportunity, but acknowledging that there are limits to American power and supporting Rand, Trump, and Cruz in promoting a foreign policy consistent with American interests.