White House press secretary Jay Carney noted yesterday that the Administration is mulling over its options with respect to the nature of American involvement in such a potential force. It is well and proper for the Administration, at least in the discovery phase of policymaking, to entertain a broad range of policy options. Nevertheless, it needs to be evident to the President and his policy planners that any direct U.S. military involvement in a peacekeeping mission in Syria would be a major mistake.
Firstly, peacekeeping missions are designed to do exactly what their name suggests: keep the peace. For that to occur, there first needs to be a significant degree of peace (or, more realistically, the absence of overt violence), and then peacekeepers can be deployed to help maintain the situation. Consequently, peacekeepers deployed to help enforce cease-fire agreements in the Balkans, Cyprus and even on the Israeli-Syrian border, have been largely successful because they have been deployed in areas where the parties in the dispute had, more or less, decided that it was no longer in their interests to fight each other. Peacekeepers have, on the other hand, been spectacularly unsuccessful when they have been deployed to combat zones where one or more of the local parties was not interested in a cease-fire.
What we are witnessing in Syria is the pent up pressure from almost 50 years of Ba’ath Party rule that has been characterized, among other things, by the control of minority groups, particularly the Alawi community, of which President Bashar Assad is a member, over the country’s Sunni majority (though with the co-optation of elements of the Sunni community). Just as the defeat of Iraq in 2003 led to the breakup of that country into its three primary ethnic and religious communities as well as a great deal of inter-communal bloodletting, Syria can be expected to see some serious settling of accounts between the Sunni majority and the country’s multiple ethnic and religious minorities as well as between factions within the Sunni community. None of this bodes well for any international peacekeeping force that may be sent in to try and maintain a nonexistent peace.
The United States has learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan that just because a country may exist on the map and have a seat in the UN General Assembly, this does not mean that it is a true nation-state – in the sense of having a fairly cohesive national identity that supersedes other loyalties. Without citizens whose loyalty to their shared state is stronger than to their ethnic community, religious community or tribe, the state will become a vehicle of whichever group is strongest. The Syrian state was a vehicle of the Alawis in concert with other minorities and some Sunnis (though not the majority). When the present regime is gone, it is fair to say that the Syrian state will become a vehicle of the Sunni majority. Does the United States really want to risk the lives of its soldiers to help the Sunni majority transform Syria into their vehicle? This is precisely what happened in Iraq as the United States inadvertently helped the Shi’a recreate the Iraqi state in their image at the expense of the Sunnis, with much American blood and treasure expended in the process.
This is not to say that the United States cannot diplomatically support an Arab and/or Turkish intervention in Syria, or even a European one (though the Europeans have been notably, and unsurprisingly, quiet on Syria). Of course, the Arab League is calling for an international force (read: an American-led force that will hand Syria over to the Sunnis and can then be blamed for any mistakes or problems that occur in the process without Arab countries having to incur any military or political risk). It would be a grave mistake for the Administration to find itself drawn into a deployment that will not result in peace, stability, and democracy in Syria but will be guaranteed to result in the death of American soldiers and, ultimately, regional condemnation.
This is not to say, however, that the United States cannot engage in covert action (if done correctly) to prevent Syrian arms from reaching the wrong people outside Syria or to try and counter Al-Qaeda elements operating in Syria if they are deemed a clear and present danger. As always, the United States should be prepared to leverage whichever elements of national power are needed to pursue its interests.
One final comment: it would be nice if the press would wean itself from the unfortunate habit of labeling the overthrow of dictators as somehow being equated with freedom and democracy. As we are now seeing in Libya and Egypt, and saw prior to that in Iraq, the overthrow of a dictator represents a shift of power to a new group (the military, a different ethnic community, different tribal groups, etc.) and not the advent of a golden age of freedom and democracy. When dictators start to falter, they usually topple quite quickly. Freedom and democracy, on the other hand, take decades, if not centuries.