As I write a battle is raging in Qusayr, Syria. It has been going on now for several days at various levels of intensity, having started in earnest on May 19. As of yesterday midday one way to measure that intensity is by the number of rocket attacks on rebel areas: approximately 55 per minute, every minute. Government reports say the battle is over and that the next step in the war is to cleanse the much larger city of Homs, 22 kilometers away, of “terrorists.” That claim is not entirely believable, yet.
These rockets are of two sorts: air-to-ground missiles fired by Syrian air force platforms (planes and helicopters) and surface-to-surface missiles fired by Hizballah fighters in alliance with the Syrian (and Iranian) regime. According to one rebel dispatch I saw, the death toll from the previous 24 hours was 184 (mostly unarmed civilians) killed, and about 2,000 wounded. These numbers are of course “soft”, but they are not entirely mythical. According to rebel communiqués, too, there is little to no fuel or food left in the town of 25,000, and the Syrian government has deliberately attacked and destroyed the town’s only hospital. The city is besieged, too; those attempting to leave, mainly through the eastern quadrants of the area, have been fired upon by Hizballah troops. Many have been killed. All of this is eminently believable.
Most of the 25,000 people in Qusayr (down from a 2004 census population figure of just over 29,000) are Sunni Muslims, although there is a significant Christian minority. At least 8,000 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox but also some Greek Catholics and some Armenians, have fled the town since April, when Sunni rebels attacked Christian churches and property and killed a number of Christians. Most of them, it seems, have fled across the border into Lebanon.
According to some battlefield reports, hard to confirm, Syrian and Hizballah forces ran a few days ago into stiff opposition in the form of small units of Chechen snipers and shock troops fighting with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This is almost poetic, in a way, since the Syrian strategy with regard to Qusayr is vividly reminiscent of the Russian strategy in Grozny some years ago. Basically, the idea is to surround the town/city, cut off all means of civilian ingress and egress, kill large numbers of civilians by remote means, and wait to storm the city after weakness and panic have made resistance futile. Are Russian advisers helping the Syrian government to implement such a strategy in Qusayr, which is using Russian weapons almost exclusively (and which Russian technicians are helping to maintain, since the Syrians cannot)? The possibility cannot be ruled out.
If Qusayr wants to surrender, will it be allowed to surrender? If the Alawi government has in mind creating a rump state that runs from the southern outskirts of Damascus up to Homs—which Qusayr guards—and from there over to Tartus, Baniyas and up into Latakia Province, can it allow more than 20,000 Sunni Muslims to remain living in such a strategic location as Qusayr? If not, will it kill as many as possible, or only kill as many as necessary to force this population to flee eastward? Will the regime use chemical weapons to do this? So far the regime has used those weapons in but modest ways, clearly in part in order to test the Western and especially the American reaction. Seeing that reaction, which was about as embarrassing and supine as possible, will the Syrian regime now feel free to unleash Sarin, V-X and the rest of its arsenal with impunity? We’ll see. It is, unfortunately, not a far-fetched possibility.
And the so-called international community, carrying its vaunted Responsibility to Protect on its sleeve, does nothing. Actually, as I have argued before, it has done worse than nothing: It has privileged diplomacy in a situation where it had no chance of success—first the Annan mission and now a prospective Russo-American Syria conference—essentially allowing the regime time to murder its way back from a military abyss. If there is a conference, after the fall of Qusayr and Homs, the regime will arrive to the table with a vastly stronger hand thanks to “diplomacy.”
Well, alas and alack, what can we do? As is well understood, having waiting far too long to do anything serious, our options in Syria and surrounds have gone way down even as the stakes have gone way up. If there were such a thing as a Neville Chamberlain Award, lauding the nitwits who still believe that the literal use or threat to use force should always be a last resort, I can think of several officials in Washington and certain European capitals who would deserve to win it.
But it’s true in late May 2013: Intervening in Syria now would be fraught with dangers, and doing it successfully (defined as preserving or recreating a functioning unitary Syrian state that is no longer waging a civil war within) would mean, among other things, launching a “Phase IV” post-combat stabilization and reconstruction effort that would cost billions and need to last for many years. No one is volunteering just now to do the job, and everyone knows that without American leadership no one will.
Short of doing the job successfully, as defined above, there are of course other options. If we wanted to deny the regime the chance to capitalize politically on its momentum with the capture of Qusayr and the likely subjugation of Homs, we could rebalance the battlefield situation from the air by having a C-130 drop one or two MOABs (GBU-43/B) on the government/palace compound area in Damascus. I am referring to a large thermobaric non-nuclear bomb, the one that replaced the fabled Daisy Cutter. One of these can pretty much level a 9-square block area. Two dropped in sequence on the same 9-square block area could pretty much decapitate the Alawi regime—and bounce a lot of freshly made rubble in the process. Doing something like that would not end the civil war; it might protract it, and it might deepen the likelihood of a partitioned state. But it would at least prevent the bad guys from winning in the near future.
Let’s face it, however: The Obama Administration is not going to do this. It’s not going to do anything, beyond its cherished diplomacy, that is. It’s not even likely to make a serious effort to cordon off the toxic effects of the Syrian civil war by helping Jordan and Turkey deal with their refugee challenges. (It has no ability to ameliorate the spillover effects in Lebanon or Iraq, especially so in the latter case because the Administration screwed up the SOFA—Status of Forces Agreement—negotiations on our way out of that benighted country.)
Why? Why does the United States intervene abroad sometimes, and sometimes not? What really decides these things?
The standard answer is that it all has to do with assessing the threat to American interests, and, in some cases, depending on the personality and beliefs of the President and his senior advisers, American principles. But interests and cold-blooded assessments of costs and prospect of success are usually asserted to take pride of place. In Syria we have an interest: harming the geopolitical power of Iran. And we have a principle: preventing the mass murder of innocents. That means we will eventually intervene, right?
No, not right, because this definition of the calculus of intervention is flawed. Sure, an unemotional assessment of interests and prospects does sometimes take place, somewhere in the government. But if we look back at American military interventions abroad, we see that the likelihood of intervention is actually a function of a much different tripartite assessment, and it is an assessment that cannot fairly be called a calculation. I mean by assessment here a kind of combinate intuition made up of three rather slippery, elastic parts: affinity, aesthetics and cycle-sensitivity.
Americans, and that includes American leaders, feel more affinity with some foreign peoples than with others. We tend to feel an affinity with those most like us, or believed to be most like us. That means, to oversimplify only a bit, light-skinned, culturally Western Christians. Affinity is only one factor of three, however, and by itself is not determinative. Rwanda? Not much affinity, and we did not intervene. Somalia? Not much affinity there either, but we did intervene—at least a little. Syria? Arabs? Not a lot of affinity: not Western and, mostly, not Christian. Indeed, most Syrians are Muslims and, despite vast exaggerations of Islamophobia, it’s still true that most Americans don’t feel a whole lot of affinity these days with religious Muslims—especially religious Muslims who eat the hearts of their enemies for the cameras.
By aesthetics I mean how the blood and gore of civil wars and other violent insurrections abroad make us feel. Many would choose the category “moral” to say what I mean by aesthetic, but I think that’s inaccurate. Most Americans more readily make aesthetic judgments than moral ones about complex foreign dramas in which it’s often hard to tell good guys from bad guys—or if there are any good guys at all. They are far more likely to feel icky than take umbrage, as in, essentially: “God that’s disgusting, what I see on my TV screen; I don’t want to see that—so either change the channel to ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or, you guys in Washington, do something to make it stop, ‘cause it’s harshing my buzz, man.”
Obviously, if there are few or no pictures of blood and gore, the aesthetic goad to intervention is weak to non-existent. We saw video and still photography of the Sarajevo market bombing within hours; there are very few journalists and photographers in Qusayr. The Syrian regime made a point of killing journalists deemed to be sympathetic to the rebels, or merely objective. Syria is a very dangerous place for foreign cameramen, far more dangerous today than the Balkans ever were. So since we see very few pictures, and no near real time photos or video, there is no story on our electronic media. That’s the production rule—no real- or near-time visuals, no story. So we’re real low on the aesthetics scale for an intervention into Syria.
By cycle-sensitivity I mean where we are in the four-part cycle of shock-reaction-overreaction-retrenchment that has defined U.S. foreign policy for at least a century or so. If we still remember the last time we intervened and lived to regret it, the less likely we’ll go off tilting at new windmills. As to Syria, we have a trifecta of anti-interventionary inoculations against an active policy. First there is Libya. As Walter Russell Mead noted the other day, the President probably regrets the Libya intervention his R2P-type advisers talked him into, what with all the unanticipated demons it has let loose. He’s therefore even more gun-shy than he would otherwise be about Syria. Second, there is Iraq and Afghanistan, two recent wars that did not go so well. And third, there is, still, Vietnam—which registers loudly in this Administration through both the present Secretaries of State and Defense, not to speak of the President’s own national security education sitting at the feet of veteran Vietnam antiwar “heroes.”
So why is the United States not intervening in Syria? Because our level of affinity with the victims is low, our aesthetic sense is not much ruffled, and our cycle-sensitivity is very high. We actually do have interests and principles both at stake in Syria, but they’re no match for the real reasons why America does or does not intervene abroad.
Could this calculus change? Well, if the Syrian regime and its Hizballah henchmen try to and halfway succeed in murdering more than 20,000 people in Qusayr in a concentrated period of time, and if the cameras catch them doing it and the footage ends up on the nightly news, yes, two of the three factors will shift. What would the President do then? I don’t know because I suspect strongly that he doesn’t know. Fuel up a C-130, and roll out a MOAB or two? It’s anyone’s guess.