There's a lot of talk this week about Syria and Iran and the various potential actions the US might or might not take against both countries. What strikes me as more than a bit strange is that many observers and experts argue that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be a disaster not only for the US, but also for the region, yet consequences are hardly mentioned at all with regard to an attack against Syria with airstrikes for the purpose of regime change. Actually, only the consequences of inaction in Syria are mentioned, not the consequences of action. While many pundits make frankly ignorant and ahistorical comparisons about supposed similarities between the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, there is silence on this with respect to Syria. Why? Cognitive bias and ideological blindness at work again.
After all, Syria, unlike Iran, has an active chemical weapons program and an active arsenal of chemical warheads which could be deployed by aircraft, artillery and ballistic missiles. Syria has used this arsenal as a hedge against Israel, and this week there were rumors that Syria might use them against the opposition. What would the regime do with those weapons if it's existence was directly threatened by a Western intervention, even if it's only naval and air power? What will happen to these weapons if Assad is overthrown? Can we expect and orderly accounting of these weapons? No one knows and anyone other than the Assads who believes they know for certain are fools.
The proponents of direct military intervention in Syria make a pretty poor effort to cloak the justification as R2P, but of course the reality is that in both cases the goal is regime change. If anything, the "run-up" to intervention in Syria is the Godchild of the invasion of Iraq, complete with no serious discussion of what would happen once the Alawites fall. Syria is, like Iraq, a state cobbled together and full of internal factions and age-old animosities that are very likely to reappear and complicate the transition to a post-Assad government.
Syria has other capabilities to strike outside it's borders as well - do those who support going to war against Syria really believe that the consequences would not be severe? Are we prepared for a civil war in Syria? Have we learned nothing from Iraq, Afghanistan and every other conflict where assumptions about consequences proved completely wrong? I ask this being fully cognizant of the strategic differences between Iran and Syria, in particular geography and oil.
Direct military intervention is ALWAYS uncertain and dangerous. Advocates for intervention need to do their homework, think through the potential consequences and plan to mitigate them. If we must intervene, US interests would be better served through covert assistance to the Syrian opposition than through a direct military intervention. Not only would we have plausible deniability, but the costs to the US would be much less and we would retain the option to militarily intervene should conditions change.