When interests meet ideals in the arena of states, ideals lose out. How shall we count the ways? In recent times, there were Somalia, Rwanda and Darfur—the massacres and the ethnic cleansing dwarfing anything happening in Syria or, last summer, in Libya. In more ancient history, the world allowed Japan to grab Manchuria and wipe out Nanking. Mussolini used poison gas to conquer Abyssinia while the League of Nations postured and then fell apart. The U.S. wouldn't even bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, the reasons put forward being: We need the ordinance for the war against the Germans. Or the tracks will be rebuilt in the nick of time. Or, God forbid, we might hit the barracks and kill Jews on the way to the gas chamber.
This brief history of human cruelty is not meant to score a cheap moral point. It is to drive home a reality usually blanked out by those given to moral grandstanding. The international community—actually, the West—intervenes only where the venture promises to be cheap, quick, and bloodless. Hence the bombing of Serbia in 1999, hence the air campaign against Qaddafi in 2011. Coldhearted interest was at work, as well. Back in the 1990s, as conflicts raged in Bosnia and Kosovo, Europeans dreaded the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and so they were keen to staunch the flow by stopping Serbia’s strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The same logic helped to topple Qaddafi; add to this French President Sarkozy’s ambition to grab leadership of the EU. So his Rafales went in first.
None of these serendipitous factors operate in the case of Syria. Start with the United States. Bill Clinton had to be dragged into air war against Serbia, a locale that held little strategic interest for the United States. Yet a dozen years later, Barack Obama would not be budged over Libya, insisting that the Europeans do the heavy lifting. Today, the U.S. is pulling out of two wars in the Greater Middle East while slashing defense spending. If America does go to war again, it will not be for moral, but for overweening realpolitik reasons: to cut Iran down to size, to secure the world’s energy lifeline through the Gulf, and to demonstrate who is number one in the most critical strategic arena of the 21st century.
What about Europe? The Europeans have been chopping away at their militaries ever since the Russians went home in 1994. They are now slicing to the bone; they simply could not mount an air operation against Syria without the U.S. But Europe’s impotence is just for starters. This time, Russia and China aren’t content to just hang back, as they did in the run-up to the Libyan campaign. They would now actively oppose any intervention—look how they nixed two watery Security Council resolutions against Syria. So would Turkey, which has its own hegemonial ambitions in the Middle East.
Nor would America’s good Sunni friends cheer, let alone provide bases, for an intervention. Despots all, they do not look forward to yet another regime change by Western bombs and bullets. Iran, whose Quds Force is already operating in Syria, might actually fight for Assad in order to preserve its strategic outpost on the Mediterranean. Would Israel offer a staging ground? Hardly. The Israelis prefer the devil they know to a Sunni-based regime that will surely come in an Islamist garb, as it did in Egypt and Tunisia.
In other words, it is red lights all over. Nor would a campaign be a cakewalk in the skies. Syria’s army is among the Middle East’s strongest, with some 5000 tanks and 500 combat aircraft, though these Soviet-era jets are a bit long in the tooth. Humanitarian duty would require an aerial slugfest at least as protracted and intensive as the air campaigns preceding Iraq I, Afghanistan and Iraq II. It will not happen.
So what will? With the recent Sino-Russian veto of a mild motion of censure by the Security Council, both sides will now fight to the finish. Harsher sanctions by the West will follow, but they will be undermined by Moscow and Beijing. Meanwhile, arms flows will quicken—to both sides. The insurgency will escalate into a full-blown civil war. And the winners will take horrible revenge on the losers. Is there an upside?
Somebody in Assad’s entourage might decide to kill him. Or a well-aimed cruise missile might do the job. Or Assad may decide that exile in Saudi Arabia is preferable to sharing Qaddafi’s fate—namely, murder at the hands of rebels. Perhaps the stuttering Syrian economy will grind to a halt, with Assad’s tanks running out of ammunition and diesel.
These are conjectures, no more. So the West will fume against Moscow and Beijing, pulling ambassadors out of Damascus and pushing for a third Security Council resolution that dilutes the two vetoed drafts. The Russians will dispatch emissaries to tell Assad … what? To make nice to the rebels? Assad’s allies in Tehran will counsel him to follow Ahmadinejad’s script in the “Green Revolution” of 2009: Don’t assault frontally, use force economically by encircling and asphyxiating your foes. A low-level war, like the terror campaign against the “Greens,” will slowly recede offstage. Meanwhile, Syrians will keep dying, the toll now exceeding 5,000.
But the West will not unleash its air forces. Libya was no precedent for Syria. Remember the rule: We bomb only where the campaign promises to be short, cheap and decisive. And where the target—like Qaddafi—has no allies. Assad does: Russia, China, and Iran.
Josef Joffe is editor of Die Zeit and Senior Fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and Abramowitz Fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford.