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Why the United States Should Stay Out of Syria

CAS’ Bacevich: we’re “powerless” against “tsunami of change”


In a recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe, BU’s Andrew Bacevich weighs in on the Gordian knot of the upheaval in Syria: when it comes to understanding the conflict’s historical context and implications, Washington “is manifestly clueless and powerless.” As daily news updates cloud an already complicated picture of splintering rebel factions, an obstinate Syrian president, Bashar Assad, the arrival of Russian missiles to bolster government forces, and talk of peace negotiations and a no-fly zone, President Barack Obama is under growing pressure to act.

Bacevich, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history and a West Point graduate and former US Army colonel, is firmly opposed to US military intervention. “Anyone who thinks Washington can bend” the process of people exercising their right to self-determination “to suit our own purposes needs to undertake a remedial study of the Iraq War,” writes Bacevich, whose books include Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War and The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War.

BU Today asked Bacevich why intervention of any kind in Syria would be misguided, what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should teach us, and the fading promise of the Arab Spring.

Andrew Bacevich - Professor, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences

Professor of international relations Andrew Bacevich. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

BU Today: You write that US intervention in Syria wouldn’t affect “the tsunami of change that is engulfing the Islamic world.” Do you believe the same holds true for the outcome of international peace initiatives?

Bacevich: Yes, very much so. It’s an illusion to imagine that outside intervention in the Syrian civil war will somehow have a calming effect on the region.

If the United States does decide to intervene, is there any historic model for a successful strategy to get in and get out?

Sure. There’s Lebanon in 1958, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989. The problem is that the situation in Syria is completely different. So there is little reason to expect an in-and-out success.

How much do we know about the anti-Assad forces? Aren’t rebel forces just as guilty of human rights abuses as government forces?

From what I read, we don’t know enough. That is, we don’t know enough to be able to say with any certainty what would be the character of a post-Assad political order. To put it another way, there exists a distinct possibility that after Assad would come a more militant and more dangerous regime.

What options short of military conflict do the United States and/or other nations have to intervene to stop human rights abuses in Syria?

The option that the Obama administration is pursuing—work with others to put the squeeze economically on Assad while also seeking a diplomatic solution. Maybe it will work. So far it hasn’t.

Beyond the security of Israel, are there any compelling US interests in Syria?

The immediate US interests are modest. I don’t know that Syria has or produces anything that’s critically important to the well-being of the American people. We do have a pronounced interest in regional stability, very much threatened by events in Syria. But our ability to promote stability is limited. Our principal instruments of power—aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, and precision-guided munitions—aren’t especially relevant.

Do you see any benefits, short-term or otherwise, from a no-fly zone, and would it be enforceable?

Arguably, a no-fly zone would tilt things in favor of the militants. But you come back to that prior question: do we really want them to win?

Are there any circumstances under which the United States would be wise to intervene militarily in Syria?

My problem with this question is that it assumes that armed intervention necessarily offers the primary way to “solve” a problem. Well, what problem should we be attempting to solve in Syria? Many observers are understandably appalled by the suffering of Syrians who are fleeing the civil war. Is suffering the problem we want to “solve”? Okay, then let’s invite Syrian war refugees who wish to do so to resettle in the United States. That would do more good for more people than dropping bombs on the Syrian army.

How do you envision the Syrian conflict playing out? What are the comparisons to the prolonged bloodshed in Lebanon?

It’s always difficult to predict how any armed conflict will turn out. Recently, the Assad regime has demonstrated surprising resilience. So at the moment, it appears that the war is likely to drag on for quite some time. But that and $1.50 will buy you a cup of coffee.

Given what’s happening in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, did the United States misread the meaning and implications of the so-called Arab Spring?

Well, at the outset there was a reflexive hope that popular uprisings would quickly and smoothly translate into the emergence of democratic governments. The hope was probably naïve, but it was also understandable. With the passage of time, it becomes more apparent that we really don’t know what the Arab Spring will produce. Come back and ask me in 10 years.

Militarily, what are the most important lessons that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us?

We err in lumping the two together, so let me treat them separately. The most important lesson of the Iraq War is that preventive war doesn’t work. Therefore, we should choose war only as a last resort. The most important lesson of the Afghanistan War is that except in very specific circumstances, nation-building is a thankless task. Therefore, in choosing war, we would do well to keep our expectations modest.

The US government and to a large extent its citizens fear Islamic majority rule spreading across the Middle East. Is that fear unfounded?

There is no alternative to Islamic majority rule in the Middle East. Muslims form the vast majority of the people living there.

Susan Seligson, Senior Writer for BU Today and Bostonia
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

8 Comments on Why the United States Should Stay Out of Syria

  • Daniel T. Moran on 06.03.2013 at 7:18 am

    Bravo to Prof. Bacevich. The long history of American military intervention has been one of great cost and also great failure. Beyond that, even if we think we would like to do something, we need to ask what it is we hope to accomplish, at what cost, and what success would look like. But in the Middle East, the complexities of the situation make any hope of success impossible. Our interventions have only made matters worse in the past. Beyond that, every American, especially the President and the Congress need only ask themselves one simple question. Is this cause important enough, compelling enough, that I would wish to send my own child there to fight and die? It is that simple. In this case, despite the suffering of the Syrian people, the answer must be an emphatic, “No!”.

  • Anonymous on 06.03.2013 at 8:27 am

    This guy’s got it.

  • cletus van damme on 06.03.2013 at 10:18 am

    “How much do we know about the anti-Assad forces? Aren’t rebel forces just as guilty of human rights abuses as government forces? From what I read, we don’t know enough”

    The anti Assad forces are made up of Jabat al-Nursra, Islamic state of Iraq (al-queda in Iraq), Al-Sham, Banner of Islam, Chechen Mujaheddin, and various North African terrorists. There are numerous videos of “freedom fighters” removing the heads of civilians loyal to Assad on the internet. From what I have seen, they are worse than Assad, far worse.

  • kafantaris on 06.03.2013 at 2:52 pm

    We are made of stone when it comes to Syria, and Qusair is proof positive of this.
    As for the U.N., it is impotent as presently constituted. Why even bother to have it around?
    We need another world body with power to timely act when need be. The results of inaction are now all over the Middle East, and we reap what we have sown.
    We were indeed naïve to expect neighboring countries to remain indifferent while the Syrian people on both sides suffer.

  • frank nweke on 08.04.2013 at 2:43 pm

    Prof have spoken well but We here in Africa are more Concern about our Christian brethren in syria.We plead with Obama administration to work with Russian and Chinese goverment in order to restore
    absolute peace in that country

  • Melinda Lee on 08.30.2013 at 10:27 pm

    Professor Bacevich: Please spread your message far and wide. Boston University: Please continue to support Prof. Bacevich in getting his assessment of the Syria crisis aired. Thank you.

  • CrisisMaven on 06.17.2014 at 11:20 am

    Can you actually name one conflict, beginning with the Korean war, which also was essentially lost when you watch how far they advanced and then were beaten back again, that the US engaged successfully in since the 1950s?

  • Faysal on 07.24.2015 at 4:44 pm

    Thank you pro. Bacevich in the midst of media setup and corrosive lies here in the US, not only clear nad tell the truth. But are rare and few in these days.

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