Juliette Kayyem

US would own the war in Syria

Syrian residents inspect houses in Homs destroyed by what they said was heavy shelling from Bashar al-Assad forces.
Yazan Homsy/REUTERS
Syrian residents inspect houses in Homs destroyed by what they said was heavy shelling from Bashar al-Assad forces.


Parisians are used to a certain amount of inertia in August, when the locals vacate and leave their city to the tourists. There are no explanations needed on the closed storefronts with signs of 8/27 or 9/3 designating simply when they will reopen. August is for sleep; everything can wait till later.

That sleepiness is being tested now, as the world looks aghast at the deteriorating violence in Syria and military hawks and humanitarian interventionists come together, once again, in a unified chorus to call for greater support and arms to the Syrian resistance. Indeed, it’s a bit of a family reunion for those ideological camps here and in the United States. But its familiarity threatens to hide key differences between Syria and the last call to intervention, Libya. This time, for example, France is steadfastly on vacation.

The lack of a clarion call for intervention from Elysee Palace was underscored last week, when former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of global efforts last year to intervene in Libya, suddenly emerged from the shadows of his May election defeat to urge action on his successor, Francois Hollande. Hollande didn’t budge.


Also back in the picture is French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who was an influential public advocate in the Libyan cause. Just a few days before Sarkozy’s remarks, Levy was also complaining on Syria’s behalf. “Facing what might be the biggest historical, political, and moral test of his mandate, this inertia, this flurry of words is not acceptable,” the ever-eloquent Levy said about Hollande.

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If Hollande has failed the test in the eyes of these critics, so surely has President Obama, who similarly is facing a barrage of attacks by left-wing interventionists and right-wing militarists over his lack of enthusiasm for intervention in Syria. America does not, they argue, take August off.

It may be that the administration is absorbing these critiques to lay the political groundwork for action, like a sophisticated trial balloon. But even the public flurry of diplomatic efforts in Turkey last weekend suggested only that we were beginning to discuss the planning for potential military action, a cautious point that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reconfirmed early this week.

Obama’s reluctance is surely shaped by the recognition that Syria is different from Libya. And the differences have almost nothing to do with the “whys” of involvement or even the “hows,” which his detractors are willing to offer up vaguely. It has to do with the “who” — the fact that any intervention would have to be led by, and financed by, the United States.

Interventionists from both the right and left surely know the differences between Libya and Syria. But many believe that the unknowns are far outweighed by the known — Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has systematically killed civilians to protect his family’s rule.


And if that isn’t enough of a justification, some conservatives are pushing for action as a kind of proxy battle with Syria’s supporter, Iran. A defeated Assad would mean a defeated Iran. If this sounds sadly familiar, too, intervention in Iraq was justified on similar grounds; a free and democratic Iraq would serve as a counterweight to Iranian influence in the Middle East. That didn’t go as planned.

Recognizing that Iraq resides in the “loss” column for the familiar humanitarian/hawk coalition, proponents of Syrian intervention are quick to assure that they are not talking about boots on the ground. What they are talking about is arming the rebel groups (now numbered at roughly 100 different forces with unverified support by civilians), providing greater intelligence and support (which is likely already happening), and enforcing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians (an operation that would be technically difficult given the urban nature of the battles). All these moves would presumably lead to Assad’s fall. If they don’t, then the interventionists have the luxury of still being right; they can just blame Obama’s foot-dragging.

But the interventionists tend to minimize the implications of involvement in Syria for the United States, and those implications are seen best here in France. Without France, the United States would need to serve as the primary enforcer of one dramatic goal: regime change. Unlike in Libya, when we could defend the military action solely as a duty to protect innocent civilians, we are already on record as insisting that the current leader, Assad, must go.

And that matters. Even if Russia, China, and Iran’s support for Assad can be brushed aside, one simple fact cannot, and ought not, be dismissed: This war would be ours. “Leading from behind,” the motto emerging from the White House to describe America’s efforts in Libya, will not be an option.

Ideological justifications for intervention sound morally assuring. But because the world is not united in opposition to Assad, because France and most of Europe are not now calling for intervention, because the Arabs are not clamoring for US action, because Russia and China and Iran are sophisticated opponents, because the United Nations has not been able to gain traction, the United States would have to stand alone at the forefront.


Intervention in Syria’s war may still be justified. But first we have to admit that we alone would own this one. It is, after all, August in Paris.

Juliette Kayyem is a Globe columnist. An earlier version of this column appeared in some newspapers.