Responsibility vs. Obligation in Syria

Over at Gunpowder & Lead, Brett Friedman has an interesting post where he argues,

This post is certainly not meant to condemn those who feel the US should intervene. Frankly, the desire on the part of many to help the people of Syria is a noble and appropriate feeling. I would hope that all Americans feel a similar desire, especially considering that our nation was born when it threw off another form of tyranny. But one can simultaneously want to help others and realize that helping would be too costly or exacerbate the problem. Indeed, recognizing our higher responsibilities or even just the limits of our ability to lend aid does not absolve us of our humanity.

Look, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this point. Most of us arguing the moral point on Syria stress that we do indeed have a responsibility to protect innocents, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so if the costs are too high.

The problem, though, is that opponents of intervention are not properly specifying the cost-benefit analysis, or at least are assuming that costs will inevitably be high and benefits uncertain. In terms of costs, the two pushbacks on intervention are that we would have to deploy significant ground forces either to actually end the killing or in some sort of post-conflict reconstruction mission.

Now, I acknowledge that Syria is a tougher nut to crack than Libya. But this assumption that the Syrian military would hold up against air strikes, for instance, is just that, an assumption. We can play dueling anecdotes forever on this score. I happen to believe that the Syrian military is brittle, that under even minimal outside military pressure it would shatter, and that as a result Assad’s capacity to suppress the revolt would collapse. But I admit, I don’t know that. I wish opponents of intervention would acknowledge that they too don’t know for sure that the reverse is true. But this is a key point. If I am right, the costs of intervention may be quite manageable, and hence there is a stronger case for our obligation. The beauty of my recommended COA — limited air strikes — is that it aims to clarify this issue, while at the same time, in the worst case serves to punish Assad, bolster deterrence against future potential cases of mass killings, and degrades his capabilities.

The post-conflict case is the more difficult one. Yes, there is a risk that a limited intervention would result in one of the following cases: (1) A collapse of Syria as a state, creating a zone of anarchy in a strategically significant region, (2) a spasm of retribution against Alawis replacing one type of mass milling with another.

But look, what are the potential consequences of doing nothing? Well, Syria could collapse as a state and there could be continued mass killing.

See, this is the problem with assuming that we would have to occupy the place in a post-conflict situation. We don’t feel an obligation to occupy the place now when collapse looms and mass killings are occurring, why would we if intervention caused those outcomes?

Well, there is any answer, namely the “Pottery Barn” rule. But look, opponents of intervention claim to have a beef with R2P and/or the “Spider-Man Doctrine,” but really they have a beef the Pottery Barn rule. And on that score, I agree wholeheartedly. The limited use of force does not need to imply an obligation to occupation and reconstruction. We need to have flexibility to use force is a limited and discriminate manner. A good place to work through that strategic logic is Syria.

2 comments to Responsibility vs. Obligation in Syria

  • Robert Farley

    “I happen to believe that the Syrian military is brittle, that under even minimal outside military pressure it would shatter, and that as a result Assad’s capacity to suppress the revolt would collapse. But I admit, I don’t know that.”

    Examples of situations in which airstrikes (of the sort we could expect in Syria) have “shattered” a military organization?

    You see, it’s not just a question of “I know” or “I don’t know”; it’s about projecting the future from past events. You might well be right, and the Syrian military might crack (perhaps you’re thinking of Libya, or of Iraq 2003? Not really comparable in my mind…), but to me it seems vastly more likely that the Syrian military will not “shatter” in response to Western airstrikes; while I’ll grant that uncertainty is involved, these do not appear to me to be co-equal possibilities.

  • I spent many years as an air defense analyst and was something of a subject matter expert on Iraq, Iran and North Korea’s back in the day. I also have some familiarity with Syria’s system. I don’t think there’s any question that the US could destroy that system with air power and then attrite the bulk of Assad’s heavy forces. In Iraq this worked very well and air power was able to essentially destroy about three divisions before they were ever engaged by ground forces. Most of the personnel melted away, but some fought as irregular units while others went on to fight post-MCO as insurgents.

    We could “break” Assads heavy forces, but it’s likely a lot of them would transition to irregular units to continue the fight. Air power is not very good at destroying irregular infantry in urban areas absent close coordination with a ground force. To “close the deal” the US could “pave the way” for one of the opposition groups by providing airborne fire support similar to what was done in Afghanistan and Libya. The US has a ton of experience doing this kind of stuff.

    But what is the strategic purpose? If the strategic purpose is to overthrow Assad then that can be accomplished by a “limited” military intervention composed primarily of air power. But air power cannot solve the “moral point” Bernard and others think it can – it can’t protect innocents from being killed in what is a de facto civil war – it can only change the balance of power between combatants. And even that is not certain, just look at Kosovo where our application of air power ended up doing very little to stop the Serbians there.

    The post-conflict case is the more difficult one. Yes, there is a risk that a limited intervention would result in one of the following cases: (1) A collapse of Syria as a state, creating a zone of anarchy in a strategically significant region, (2) a spasm of retribution against Alawis replacing one type of mass milling with another.

    But look, what are the potential consequences of doing nothing? Well, Syria could collapse as a state and there could be continued mass killing.

    How is this an argument for intervention? If, as many believe (including myself), Syria is headed for bloody civil war one way or another, then what is intervention supposed to accomplish? We’re supposed to hasten things along by breaking Assad’s military forces? If intervention can make things better, then how, exactly, can that be accomplished?

    Promises of security guarantees for the Alawites and others are simply wishful thinking. The US does not have the ability to protect the Alawites from reprisals unless we’re willing to set-up some kind of protectorate similar to the Kurds in northern Iraq. What is your plan when Homs is safe and Latakia is under siege by the very forces we helped take over the country? The various groups in Syria have their own agendas and they will make promises to obtain US support and then fail to meet those promises when the time comes.

    This is the fundamental flaw in the moral justification for a limited intervention. It assumes that we can make things better and protect people who would otherwise be killed, but we simply can’t unless we’re willing to establish protectorates. Changing the balance of power between the government and opposition groups protects one group of people at the expense of another which is not, IMO, a morally justifiable reason to intervene in Syria’s civil war.

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