The Syrian Civil War is an ongoing civil war between the armed forces of the government, led by President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, and a broad range of opposition groups, from the moderate Free Syrian Army to the extremist Islamists in the Al-Nusra Front. Additionally ISIS (whose aim is to create an Islamic State combining Iraq and Syria) have taken advantage of the chaos in the region, taking control of ⅓ of Syria and most of the oil supplies. ISIS support neither the opposition nor the government. The war has created a humanitarian crisis- an estimated 200,000 people have died (roughly 1% of the population), and 7.6 million have been displaced. Recently many of these displaced people have been seeking refuge in Europe, causing chaos in the borderless Schengen area and thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. There are clear, liberal reasons to use military force to stop this civil war and end the suffering. Since the Syrian regime is unpleasant and undemocratic, the liberals would argue we should intervene to help the opposition and help them establish a new, democratic and secular government. From a realist perspective there are a number of drawbacks.
Firstly, as Kissinger notes here this would upset the post-Westphalia global order that demands other powers should not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. However brutal the Civil War is, the government of Syria has not demanded intervention from anyone except Russia, and therefore it is not the US’s business to intervene, so argues Kissinger. However cruel this argument may sound, Kissinger does have a point. Should the US support, with arms, every violent uprising against every non-democratic government in the world? While it may be easy to change a regime in a small country like Syria, if democrats in Moscow or Beijing began a rebellion against their respective governments, surely it would be suicidal for the US to support such rebel groups with armed force? Drawing a line at what is a legitimate uprising against a dictatorship and what is a terrorist organisation (the difference between the Free Syrian Army and ISIS for example) would be even more of a headache for US foreign policy makers.
It’s this reductio ad absurdum that leads realists to favour practical over principled foreign policy. It may lead to absurd contradictions, for example hostility to the theocrats in Iran but friendship with the theocrats in Saudi Arabia, but if played right it is an effective tool for advancing the permanent interests of a nation, and not getting stuck in the quagmire of morals when contemplating foreign policy.
Secondly, Kissinger points out that while regime change may in fact advance US interests in certain key respects, a lack of knowledge as to who could take power in the vacuum means it is best to stick with the devil they know. As precedent Kissinger cites the case of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While at the time, arming Islamists to fight the Soviets seemed like a good idea, in hindsight it led to Afghanistan being an operating space for Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda to operate, and with US money they were able to plan and execute the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In other words, intervention in such a fragmented civil war with several competing opposition groups, from the Seculars to the Salafists, could have unforeseen consequences and so thus it is best for the US to stay out. In fact, the very real possibility of ISIS taking control of Syria, as they have nearly done so in Iraq and Libya, could mean that regime change in Syria is a net negative to US power and influence.
A third reason for the lack of intervention is the strong support for the Assad regime on the part of Russia. Russia has recently sent “half a dozen T-90 tanks, 15 howitzers, 35 armoured personnel carriers, 200 marines and housing for as many as 1,500 personnel” according the New York Times. Going to war with Assad could well mean going to war with Russia. Since Russia has nuclear weapons, and is becoming increasingly isolated enough to consider using them, this is an outcome that would not be positive for US security and survival.
To conclude- realists should oppose US military intervention in Syria. It would destabilize the region, create uncertainty and possibly lead to war with Russia, none of which would be good for US security or US power interests. While perhaps it may mean the US loses some face, especially in light of Obama’s crossed red lines, the US will emerge stronger for washing its hands of the putrid affair and keeping its eye on the bigger picture.