On the one hand, U.S. involvement in Syria will under no circumstance be a cakewalk. On the other hand, broken as it is at this stage, the longer we wait the more complex the task will be. For the U.S., there is no running away from this, irrespective of the wishes of its leaders.
On the Broken Hand
Approaching the conflict in Syria from the perspective of “maintaining the taboo” on use of chemical weapons is not enough, and will surely not end the conflict. Classical containment no longer works. The focus in Syria should be on stopping state-level impunity. At this point in the development of global order, state-sponsored crackdowns and state-instigated civil wars are not issues that can be tolerated as domestic affairs, because their repercussions will reverberate across the world. Classical interpretations of sovereignty need to be reassessed. Security is no longer a local concern. The tendency for overt authoritarian and corrupt practices such the ones observed in Syria today pose a clear and present danger to global order, they need to be curbed and punished. Attempting to contain the conflicts they generate is no longer sufficient to ensure global security, because the repercussions in such an interconnected world are hard to predict.
Case in point: chemical weapons are now being used in Syria, and the fate of huge stockpiles is now at stake. If one rogue state gets away with it, what would stop another rogue state from following suit? This was the question that the crackdown in Syria posed even without the use of chemical weapons. Use of chemical weapons simply ups the ante. Moreover, with the identity of the Boston attackers in mind, and the fact that there are Chechen groups now operating in Syria, and while there is no clear organizational connection between the two theaters at this stage, we cannot but wonder about the future and its possibilities. Indeed, conditions are fast ripening for the emergence of such connections.
Containing the fallouts from this situation requires serious involvement through supporting moderate rebels and imposing a no-fly zone in order to facilitate the emergence of local governance structures. It will be up to these structures to maintain local law and order as well as a system of accountability that prevents vendettas and stands up to extremists. Assad has to go as well, the sooner the better. In order for the current global order to have any legitimacy, it cannot give a pass to someone willing to engage in such unspeakable acts of horror. Accountability is critical to legitimacy. That makes involvement in Syria a pretty toll order, but that’s the nature of the challenge, and it will not disappear or get any simpler just because we are wary of it. The reality is Syria has already been broken, and the world already owns it.
In the words of Timothy Garton Ash, a professor at Oxford University: “In a no-polar or G0 world, with multiple competing powers, both global and regional, having an interest in a fractured country, such civil and proxy wars become more difficult to stop… Unless we develop new ways of conflict resolution, strong enough to constrain this new world disorder, the 21st may be bloodier yet.”