Readers of this blog know that I have long advocated US intervention in Syria’s conflict — short of sending in ground troops, but to include establishing humanitarian aid corridors, liberated zones, no-fly zones, and weapons to rebel groups. The main goal of these actions is not so much to force a military victory, as to show Assad’s supporters that the rebels have international support, to encourage defections.
But it is now too late for this. Iran and Hezbollah have fully committed, including having Hezbollah troops in Syria to reinforce ground operations against rebel forces. There is no way that international intervention can make Assad’s allies feel isolated or inclined to defect, as they have Iranian, Hezbollah, and even Russian allies and supporting their side.
Moreover, by dithering so long, the West has allowed Jihadist fighters and those sponsored by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to dominate the rebel forces, so there is no way that any rebels getting arms or aid from Western countries will feel obligated to be pro-Western after any conflict.
What we have now is a full scale Sunni vs. Shia international proxy war being fought in Syria, with both sides strong enough to hold on for some time. The best one can do now is keep international scrutiny on Assad’s forces, condemn them and demand international sanctions and UN condemnation if they do in fact demonstrably use chemical weapons (as it seems they have), and hope the stalemate plays out. One could provide increased weapons support to the rebels, just to ensure the Iran and Hezbollah do not secure and easy victory, but there should be no illusions that anything more than that kind of delaying can be accomplished.
Could the West have intervened more effectively if they had done so earlier? Perhaps; we will never know. What is now certain is that by delaying all of the worst-case scenarios have now been realized: full-scale civil war, sectarian cleansing, division of the country, foreign involvement, jihadists playing a major role.
What the West can do now, and must as it bears no small responsibility, is to provide generous humanitarian and refugee assistance to Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq to help the hundreds of thousands of war refugees who have fled Syria, and to help those governments avoid being deeply weakened by the refugee inflows.
When I was working on various projects to forecast conflict, there was always the hope expressed by scholars and government officials that if we could just foresee where genocides and major conflicts were going to arise, we could prevent them. I kept arguing that was not the case — that even if we could foresee such disasters (and we often can), it would not help because politicians would not seek to intervene unless there was overwhelming pressure to do so, and by that time blood would already by flowing and the perpetrators would be well-entrenched.
Syria is a perfect illustration. It was not at all hard to see that as soon as Assad determined to fight to keep his regime in power, that massive violence and sectarian cleansing would follow. The problem is that the US could not rouse itself to lead a Western intervention to stop it. Now that intervention is finally being actively discussed, it is too late to be effective.