Never Mind Political Risk, Who Can Afford a Syria Intervention?

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There are many reasons why Western military action in Syria remains unlikely despite the Assad regime’s sustained brutality against its opponents, and the burgeoning refugee crisis along the Turkish border. For one thing, Western powers remain fearful of the consequences of toppling President Bashar al-Assad in what is fast evolving into a sectarian civil war that threatens to draw in partisans in Lebanon and Iraq. As much as they loathe him, Western powers tend to see Assad as the devil they know; an internal armed challenge to the regime is likely to be led by elements that the U.S. and its allies might think twice about empowering. Then, there’s the fact that a number of UN Security Council members, including veto-wielding Russia and China, are alarmed by the manner in which NATO took a resolution mandating the protection of Libya’s civilians as license for a military campaign to oust the Gaddafi regime. As a result, the Council appears unlikely to even pass a resolution criticizing Syria’s crackdown, much less one providing any legal basis for military action. And, let’s not forget, nobody in Syria has actually called for the sort of intervention seen in Libya.

But even if the obstacles presented by those factors were diminished, it’s far from clear that Western powers would have much appetite for intervention in Syria.  “Blood and treasure” is the shorthand for the national commitment required to wage an expeditionary war, and for a democracy to expend them on any sustained basis requires maintaining the support of its citizenry. Right now, in most of the Western European countries, and even the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya have produced a growing fatigue and resistance to foreign military entanglements.

A recent Rasmussen survey found that just 26% of likely American voters support U.S. military involvement in Libya, while 42% are opposed.  And close to half the respondents in a June Pew survey agreed with the isolationist statement that “the United States should “mind its own business internationally”.

Advances in battlefield medical capability and the ability to wage war by more remote means such as drones has diminished the amount of American blood spilled in even protracted foreign engagements — at least when compared with the meat-grinder of Vietnam — but the demands on America’s treasury are rising, at a point when the nation’s politicians are raging against  “unfunded mandates”.

The conflict in Afghanistan, which has now dragged on twice as long as World War II but presents no greater prospect of transforming that society today than it did five years ago, is costing America upward of $100 billion a year. And it may be the financial burden, rather than circumstances in Afghanistan, that forces Washington to retrench its Afghan mission.


“Money is the new 800-pound gorilla,” a senior Administration official involved in Afghanistan policy told the Washington Post. “It shifts the debate from ‘Is the strategy working?’ to ‘Can we afford this?’ And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible.”

Even the reliably hawkish Republicans are beginning to the question open-ended U.S. military commitments in far-flung places.

And if a declining U.S. economy limits America’s ability to police the world, the problem is dramatically more acute among its European NATO allies, where the public is far more strongly opposed to expeditionary wars than Americans have been. The grim reality — which Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned pointed to a “dismal future” for the alliance — was evident in the Libya campaign. There, the U.S. agreed to play a support role enabling a European-led mission, having calculated that no vital American national interests were at stake but encouraging the French and British enthusiasm for policing their own back yard. But less than half of NATO’s members participated in the mission, and fewer of those in combat capacity. By the end of April, the Europeans began to run short of the munitions required to sustain an air war of the sort being undertaken in Libya. Just this week, a leading British Navy official, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, warned that the current NATO mission in Libya can’t be sustained beyond the summer. It’s far from clear that the tactics adopted by the alliance will have dislodged Gaddafi by then — and if, by some chance, they do, the resulting power vacuum would almost certainly require foreign troops.

Gates, in his blunt valedictory speech to NATO, was simply pointing out the obvious: Cuts in European defense budgets over the past two decades have left the alliance painfully ill-equipped to sustain such an operation without the U.S. taking on the lion’s share, and Washington’s own appetite for global policing is diminishing. Given the limitations cruelly exposed by the Libya operation, Gates warned that NATO faces “the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance.”

Perhaps, although that prospect would likely to be greeted with a shrug by the majority of voters in Western Europe, who never embraced the post-Cold War idea of  NATO playing deputy sheriff to Washington in the Hindu Kush or the Middle East. Indeed, many European voters would see a military alliance whose purpose had been to protect Western Europe from the Red Army as having outlived the purpose of its format.

As Gideon Rachman points out in the Financial Times, Gates’ gloomy speech “effectively marks the end of the American ambition to turn Nato into the global, military arm of a unified western world…. The fact that Europeans called for a campaign in Libya that they are incapable of conducting alone has merely re-enforced the American view that the European arm of NATO is, to varying degrees, feckless and unreliable… Even more significant in the long run is the American anxiety that budgetary constraints, which are leading to defense cuts in Europe, are beginning to be replicated in the U.S. itself.”

A quick glance at the Libya debacle suggests that neither the U.S. nor the Western Europeans will be willing to commit blood and treasure to meet the far more complex and dangerous challenge of toppling Syria’s regime. According to cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats in Turkey in 2009 were alarmed by what they saw as a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy taking shape in Ankara, as Turkey, having broken with failed U.S. policies in the Middle East, sought to restore its influence across an Arab world once ruled from Istanbul. Today, Turkish intervention — unlikely, as it is — to bring to oust the troublesome chieftain in the old Ottoman province of Syria might be quietly welcomed in the West.