Skip to main content

Syria strike would put peace further out of reach

By Patrick M. Regan, Special to CNN
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu September 5, 2013
A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations. A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations.
HIDE CAPTION
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
Syria's refugee crisis
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Patrick M. Regan: Obama facing decision on striking Syria over use of chemical weapons
  • Whatever strategic reasons, he says, Obama's act would have implications for Syria's civil war
  • He says much research shows outside intervention in civil wars makes them longer and worse
  • Regan: Statistical evidence suggests well-timed negotiations can shorten war

Editor's note: Patrick M. Regan is a professor of peace studies and political science at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, who studies violent armed conflict and its resolution. He is the author of "Civil Wars and Foreign Powers" (University of Michigan Press, 2000) and "Sixteen Million One" (Paradigm, 2009), which examines the causes, consequences and possible solutions to civil wars.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama faces a terrible choice in the coming days. It is whether to kill a number of Syrians who had nothing to do with a poison-gas massacre to show President Bashar al-Assad, who presumably did have something to do with it, that using chemicals weapons violates an international norm.

Few would doubt the importance of international agreements to regulate war, particularly those that safeguard the rights of citizens, such as bans on chemical weapons and torture. If al-Assad is responsible for the use of chemical weapons, he had full knowledge of the norms he was violating.

By way of comparison, President George W. Bush chose a policy that allowed torture in interrogations with full knowledge that it was outlawed by agreements to which the United States was a signatory. He made a strategic choice in the face of a threat to national security. Both are abhorrent actions on the part of national leaders, both taken for fundamentally the same reasons.

Patrick M. Regan
Patrick M. Regan

An attack on the Syrian military by the United States would send a message to al-Assad, but it is not clear if Obama has any strategic objective beyond that. Whether he has such a plan or not, any U.S. attack will have implications for the civil war, no matter how much Obama says otherwise.

If the United States launches missiles into Syria, those cheering the loudest will be the Syrian rebels. The United States will be intervening in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the rebels. A significant amount of research, including my own, demonstrates that military interventions from outside states lengthen and make bloodier civil wars. Much of this evidence is the result of statistical modeling of all civil wars and any associated interventions. The data include roughly 1,000 interventions into 100 civil wars over the last 60 years, with research carried out by multiple research teams.

The results point to patterns in what happens when states intervene to try to help their preferred actor, and the results are strong and consistent that interventions rarely work to promote peace or reduce violence. For example, my own research has shown that the likelihood of a civil war lasting for four years without an intervention is 37%, but if there is an intervention the likelihood that it lasts for four years is 60%. The intervention accounts for the 50% increase in the length of the war.

Syrian rebels film execution
Gingrich: 'This is an act of war'
Obama reframes 'red line'

Longer wars are generally bloodier. Examples might include the Nicaraguan war in the 1980s, and the Syrian war up to this point. The meager support for the rebels has allowed them to push harder against the government, and whether or not we support the government, the killing and the war's duration has only increased.

It's hard to predict exactly what will happen, of course, but once the United States bombs Syrian forces, it is possible that the rebels will take that moment to launch their own offensive, forcing the Syrian government to respond even more resolutely, greatly worsening the bloodshed.

Even if a U.S. missile strike reflects inadvertent help for the rebels, history does not point to a good outcome for U.S. policy.

The only pathway by which external interventions consistently make for shorter or less bloody wars is through diplomatic efforts to broker a peace agreement. The same modeling evidence suggests that the war in Angola, 1975-1991, could have been shortened by nearly 10 years with well-timed diplomatic interventions.

From this perspective, a missile strike will only move the situation further from peace. Sometimes the difficulty for warring parties to come to a negotiating table is tied up in information that is held private, the very thing that mediators can manage. So why not engage in serious diplomacy?

The United States has two stated policies, at least beyond the immediate question of punitive bombing in response to the chemical attacks. The first is to aid the Syrian opposition in its fight against the Assad regime; the second is to help broker a negotiated settlement.

The second goal makes sense; the first is fraught with difficulties. Two aspects of the negotiated route pose a problem for the United States. First, the official U.S. policy is that al-Assad must go. Both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry have made these claims. Second, the rebels have steadfastly refused to negotiate. The only policy on the table is to kill more Syrians to show the Syrian leaders that killing Syrians is wrong. In this regard, U.S. policies are inconsistent with past behavior, empirical evidence and logic.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick M. Regan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT