With the death toll mounting in Syria and refugees swarming across its borders, there seems to be sparse hope among academics in the Capital Region that a U.S. military strike will bring an end to the complex civil war.
Key lawmakers appear poised to support President Barack Obama as he asks Congress for authority to wage limited attacks on Syria. Yet his call for strikes has done little to convince area experts a military action will either end the bloody conflict or push it toward a favorable outcome.
Even if there is a resolution to the conflict that has raged since the Arab Spring of 2011, it’s unlikely to be one that will please U.S. leaders, said Vera Eccarius-Kelly, a professor of comparative politics at Siena College in Loudonville. In part, she said, that’s because rebel forces now waging war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime are fragmented into groups, some of which are being funded by organizations considered hostile to American interests, including al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.
“We have this incredible confusion on the ground,” she said, “and it’s very unclear now what to do.”
In a sense, Eccarius-Kelly said Obama created an untenable situation when he established the use of chemical weapons as the “red line” that would precipitate an attack from the United States. Now that Assad has crossed that line, she said Obama must seek support for an attack or appear weak internationally.
“It’s really kind of an interesting and complicated dilemma because there are no good options,” she said.
Eccarius-Kelly said the time to get involved was when the uprising began — when the opposition was more moderate. But with the rebel factions being supported by extremist groups, she said the time for intervention has long since passed.
“If we had wanted to support the opposition, it should have happened a year and a half ago,” she said. “But the international community chose not to get involved, and now we have an absolute debacle.”
That debacle now threatens to destabilize other nations, as well, as refugees continue to flee Syria. An estimated 2 million people have crossed into neighboring nations, including ones ill-prepared to deal with their needs.
“Lebanon and Jordan are tinderboxes,” he said, “Here we have literally hundreds of thousands of refugees and with no end in sight.”
Syria has a population of more than 22 million and has been ruled under the dictatorship of the Assad family for more than four decades. The ruling Alawites — a Shiite group of ethnic Arabs — are a minority representing less than a quarter of the population but enjoy special privileges under the Assad regime.
The conflict wasn’t initially sectarian, explained Feryaz Ocakli, a professor of comparative politics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, but with the military ruled by Alawites and supporting the Assad regime, the struggle has fueled the simmering hatred between ethnic groups and led to a great deal of uncertainty about which will prevail if the Assad regime is toppled.
“That’s the biggest concern being discussed these days,” he said. “Will a military operation aid the extreme elements? That’s a valid concern for sure.”
Lobe said United States intervention in the Syrian conflict appears to have “disaster written all over it.” He said the complexity of Assad’s opposition makes any strike against his regime problematic.
U.S. military strikes could result in even more civilian casualties, since Assad has had ample warning to move chemical stockpiles toward population centers. And if they’re too effective at crippling his regime, the result could be a power vacuum that could allow an even more extreme leader to seize power.
“We don’t want to change the balance of forces too much,” Lobe said.
Ultimately, he believes a diplomatic approach would be best suited to diffuse the situation, but that would require the United States to enter talks with nations it regards as enemies.
“I don’t think we’ve tried very hard to do a true diplomatic solution,” he said. “There’s always a diplomatic solution.”