Syria, Our New Nineteenth Century Proxy War

The Economist is on board with Syrian intervention, from arms to a no-fly zone, largely because it means curbing the influence of Iran:

The growing risk of a nuclear Iran is one reason why the West should intervene decisively in Syria not just by arming the rebels, but also by establishing a no-fly zone. That would deprive Mr Assad of his most effective weapon—bombs dropped from planes—and allow the rebels to establish military bases inside Syria. This newspaper has argued many times for doing so on humanitarian grounds; but Iran’s growing clout is another reason to intervene, for it is not in the West’s interest that a state that sponsors terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist should become the regional hegemon.

The leader fails to persuade me for a few reasons. There is no analysis of the consequences of entering a civil war as decisively as The Economist wants. And there is an assumption, not an argument, that Iran is obviously the biggest threat in the region, and that a nuclear Iran cannot be contained, as every other new nuclear power in history has 853624-gulliver1been. And I suspect crippling a rising Shia power – by brutal sanctions – will not end well for the US and has already failed to achieve its stated goal.

I’m also unsure whether it is better for the US for the Sunni or the Shia factions of Islam to prevail in the growing regional religious war. I’m only sure that we should not care enough to ask the question. These are not our religious wars. We had ours in the 16th and 17th centuries. No one intervened to police ours  – and because of that, we arrived at our own liberal evolution. Non-intervention can be a blessing in resolving core internal conflicts that need to be resolved internally before a new order can arise. That may take decades or centuries. And if we are yanked by every outbreak into intervention, we shall indeed soon be like Gulliver.

One useful way of thinking about this is to ask oneself: what would China do? They’re our main competitor and only likely challenger in global power. And they merrily look the other way, while getting the bulk of the Iraqi oil American soldiers in part died for. Yes, the humanitarian horrors are there. So were they in Iraq, where today, after democratization and an elected government, 24 people were murdered and an insurgent cell making chemical weapons was busted. We were there for a decade and this is what we left behind. How on earth does anyone think we’d do better with a fraction of the resources in Syria?

Larison rolls his eyes at The Economist:

The fact that Iran’s ally in Syria has been fighting off an internal rebellion backed by several other regional governments for the last two years suggests that Iranian power in the region isn’t waxing. It is at best holding steady, and it has clearly declined from where it was a few years ago. Put simply, Iran is in no danger of becoming the region’s hegemon.

Iran and its allies are on the defensive, and even if Assad holds on to power for the next few years Iran and Hizbullah will be preoccupied with propping him up. If an important American client or ally somewhere were wracked by civil war and its government was in danger of being overthrown, no one would be claiming that U.S. regional influence was on the rise. So there’s not much merit to the idea that Iran is gaining in regional influence and strength. On the contrary, it is desperately trying to stave off a serious setback. Even if Iran “wins” in Syria, it won’t be in a better position than it was two years ago. Its regional influence would almost certainly be reduced.

Steve Clemons agrees and wishes the administration would return to the sober calculus preceding the Libyan intervention:

With Syria, Obama is behaving in ways that run counter to the decision criteria he applied in Libya. He is committing intelligence and military resources to a crisis that does not have UN Security Council sanction, and he is not framing his response to the chemical weapons use in terms of either punishing the commanders who authorized their use — or to security those weapons. Instead, Obama is joining the rebel forces and committing to a regime change formula that could potentially falter. And that is before calculating the global strategic costs of getting in a nasty stand-off with Russia whose support is needed on other global challenges.

Larison fires back that “Clemons gives the intervention in Libya more credit for coherence and planning than it deserves”:

[T]he main problem with the analysis here is that it fails to account for how the administration’s muddled Syria policy is in many respects a product of the decision to intervene in Libya. The Libyan war created false hopes of similar action elsewhere, but it also applied a standard for intervention that the conflict in Syria would not be able to meet. Partly to placate critics at home, the administration emphasized the unique, virtually unrepeatable conditions that made direct intervention in Libya feasible.

Recent Dish on Syrian intervention here and here.