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Into Syria without Arms

NEW YORK – Much of the debate over what to do in the Middle East tends to pit realists against idealists. Bahrain is a classic case, as is Saudi Arabia and, for that matter, Egypt: calls for the United States and other countries with interests and influence in the region to stand up for democracy and human rights run up against concerns that national-security interests will suffer if pro-Western authoritarian regimes are ousted. European and US policymakers often attempt to square the circle with a compromise policy that is inconsistent and satisfies no one.

Syria offers a stark contrast to this pattern in the sense that strategic and humanitarian interests are aligned. Many governments have a strategic desire to oust a regime that is closely allied with Iran and Hezbollah. And there is a humanitarian desire to get rid of a regime that has killed as many as 15,000 – if not more – of its own people.

But an armed intervention would be a large undertaking, one requiring not just considerable air power (given Syria’s extensive air-defense network) but also ground forces, given the existence of at least two capable divisions that remain loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The sectarian nature of Syrian society all but guarantees that the presence of troops from other countries would be both prolonged and difficult.

One alternative to direct military intervention is to provide arms and other forms of support to the opposition. This is being done. The case for helping people defend themselves is obvious. But arming the opposition is not without its drawbacks. It risks fueling a civil war and encouraging regime loyalists to dig in. In addition, arms provided to fight the regime will be used by factions to fight one another if and when the regime is removed, thereby making the aftermath in Syria that much more violent.