This article appears in this week’s magazine under the title, “Intervention Will Only Make it Worse.” Brzezinski rebuts Sen. John McCain, who argues in his article that Syrian intervention is in the U.S. interest.
The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war in a volatile region whose potential to spread and directly threaten American interests would only be increased by U.S. intervention.
The struggle is between forces funded and armed by outside sponsors, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. Also participating are foreign religious groups not directly controlled by the sponsors, namely the Sunni Salafists and Iranian-aligned militias, not to mention intensely anti-Western al-Qaeda fighters. American involvement would simply mobilize the most extreme elements of these factions against the U.S. and pose the danger that the conflict would spill over into the neighborhood and set Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon on fire.
That risk has been compounded by the recent Israeli bombing of weapons sites inside Syria. Whatever their justification, the attacks convey to some Arabs the sense that there is an external plot against them. That impression would be solidified if the U.S. were now to enter the fight, suggesting a de facto American-Israeli-Saudi alliance, which would play into the hands of the extremists.
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Broader regional fighting could bring the U.S. and Iran into direct conflict, a potentially major military undertaking for the U.S. A U.S.-Iran confrontation linked to the Syrian crisis could spread the area of conflict even to Afghanistan. Russia would benefit from America’s being bogged down again in the Middle East. China would resent U.S. destabilization of the region because Beijing needs stable access to energy from the Middle East.
To minimize these potential consequences, U.S. military intervention would have to achieve a decisive outcome relatively quickly through the application of overwhelming force. That would require direct Turkish involvement, which seems unlikely given Turkey’s internal difficulties, particularly its tenuous relations with its substantial Kurdish minority.
The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of tiddlywinks intervention from around the edges of the conflict—no-fly zones, bombing Damascus and so forth—would simply make the situation worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically beneficial for the U.S. On the contrary, they would produce a more complex, undefined slide into the worst-case scenario. The only solution is to seek Russia’s and China’s support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be “persuaded” not to participate.
Brzezinski was National Security Adviser from 1977 to 1981
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