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Why No U.S. Intervention In Syria?

Unlike Libya, It's Complicated


Updated May 15, 2012

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's violent military crackdown on civil dissidents reaches its first anniversary and the civilian death toll reaches 8,000, many critics are asking why the United States does not lead a military intervention of the type it helped NATO spearhead in Libya in 2011. The answer is complicated, and it requires some examination.

President Obama's Recent Comments

U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with many other world leaders, have declared Assad's leadership illegitimate and called for his resignation. Assad inherited the presidency from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000. The U.S. and other nations have also constructed a system of economic sanctions against Syria to prevent oil sales and other exports from funding the continued violence.

Armed western intervention in Syria, however, appears unlikely.

In a press conference on March 6, 2012, Obama said, "for us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake. What happened in Libya was we mobilized the international community, had a U.N. Security Council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time. This is a much more complicated situation."

But what makes intervention in Syria so complicated? Read on.

Syria's Armed Forces Compared To Libya's

  • According to NationMaster.com statistics, as of 2005 Syria had total armed forces personnel of 416,000 (5.49% of its available labor force) compared to 76,000 (3.25% of total labor force) for Libya.
  • In 2004, Muammar Qaddafi's Libyan army had 1,800 tanks, compared to 1,400 (some say 4,500) in Syria. Libya, however, contains 680,000 square miles, while Syria has only 71,500 square miles, thus Syria has the ability to concentrate its armored power instead of diluting across its landscape.
  • In total weaponry, ranging from sidearms to rolling armor, Syria has nearly 12 million pieces compared to 5 million in Libya.
  • GlobalSecurity.org indicates that Syria has an estimated 800 aircraft, including trainers, most of which are Russian (or Soviet) made, and some 5-6,000 surface-to-air missiles. GlobalSecurity suggests Libyan air force numbers hovered around 500 aircraft for decades. Libya also had a full complement of surface-to-air missiles. Much of Syria's air defense batteries are reportedly positioned in populous areas, making it difficult for an interventionist force to knock them out.
  • Qaddafi's military was prone to splintering even before NATO intervention, but observers doubt that would be the case in Syria. Assad's elite Alawite clan has for decades ruled and kept a lid on Sunni-Shiite factionalism through a ruling Ba'ath party. The Associated Press reports that there is little likelihood of Syrians abandoning those ranks; "That includes not just Assad's Alawite clan, but the minority Christians, Kurds and Druze, who all fear persecution under a possible Sunni Islamic rule."
  • Syria reportedly also has biological and chemical weapons hidden throughout the country. To strike without knowing where BioChem weapons are risks multiplying the human devastation.

In short, any venture into Syria is markedly different than the Libyan mission.


Iran and Syria are known allies. They are also both historic enemies of Israel. Iran's President Mahmoud Amadinejad has declared he would like to see Israel wiped off the map.

While the removal of Assad could ultimately deprive Iran of a close ally, the intervention to make that happen could first agitate Iran into action against Israel or other U.S. allies. That at a time when the United States is leading diplomatic action to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons.

Russia and China

Russia and China are allies and trade partners with Syria. Would they militarily oppose any U.S.-led intervention in Syria? Probably not, but they wouldn't back it either.

Russia and China have already vetoed in the United Nations an Arab League plan to have Assad hand over power to a vice-president. They certainly would veto any U.N. attempt to authorize armed intervention. That would prohibit any multilateral approval from an American-led strike.

War Weariness

After being at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a decade, Americans are weary of war. The U.S. ended its combat involvement in Iraq in 2011, and plans to do the same in Afghanistan at the end of 2012. Americans are loathe to take on another long-term military mission.

Hawks will point out that the Libyan intervention did not necessitate a long-term U.S. commitment, but Qaddafi's political hold was not as great as Assad's is, and Libyan rebels quickly formed the Libyan National Council to transition the government. No such organization exists in Syria, thus, any dismantling of the Assad regime will require a long period of "occupation," probably led by the United States.

The American experience in Baghdad prohibits another such adventure in Syria. The old phrase "If you break it, you buy it" applies to interventions and regime changes. Armed intervention in Syria risks alienating the Allawites, dismantling the Ba'ath party, and igniting Sunni-Shiite conflict. George W. Bush demanded that U.S. forces "deBaath-ify" Iraq in 2003, and chaos resulted.

And So, Intervention Is Unlikely

For those reasons and more, top U.S. officials don't want armed intervention in Syria just yet. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice doesn't recommend it, neither do Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta nor Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. (Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have called for American air strikes on Syria, but that's just campaign rhetoric designed to differentiate themselves from Obama.

In an excellent article at ForeignPolicy.com Aaron David Miller suggests that situations such as the one in Syria leave world leaders with few good options. Sometimes the best thing to do in hang on and "muddle through."

That is essentially what the United States is doing about Syria, and it fits Obama's logical, methodical, contemplative style of doing business.

"What we've done is to work with key Arab states, key international partners . . . to come together and to mobilize and plan how do we support the opposition; how do we provide humanitarian assistance; how do we continue the political isolation; how do we continue the economic isolation," said Obama. "And we are going to continue to work on this project with other countries. And it is my belief that, ultimately, this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen."

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