The United States faces critical problems in intervening in Syria, problems that have already proved to be far more serious than intervening in Libya. Committing military forces starts an open-ended process where it is extremely difficult to control the size of the U.S. role and almost impossible to predict the consequences.
The United States now faces dilemmas in Syria that are almost certain to keep reoccurring in the future. On the one hand, the movements the United States aids can begin as allies and liberators but then trigger internal forces that breed new kinds of extremism and end in aiding our enemies. On the other hand, the situation will often be little better if the United States does not intervene.
Syria is too powerful a military machine for the United States to directly challenge without a massive use of force, and it presents a host of regional uncertainties if the United States does use direct military force. At the same time, Syria shows every sign of becoming more and more polarized along sectarian lines. The role of Sunni Islamist extremists in Syria is growing, but so is the role of Shi'ite elements like Iran's Al Quds Force and Hezbollah. Every week of extended conflict increases popular suffering and the economic challenges any successor regime will face.
And Libya and Syria are only the start. The political, religious, economic, and social upheavals in the Islamic and Arab worlds are virtually certain to produce a decade or more of instability and similar armed power struggles. The United States will be forced into an expeditionary diplomacy and have to make hard choices about the best way to intervene.
Many of these choices will center on politics, regional stability, and the need for civil and humanitarian forms of aid. It seems almost certain, however, that the United States will repeatedly face the same security dilemmas it faced in Libya and now faces in Syria: either finding some way to intervene with military force, or standing by-both with unpredictable and highly negative potential consequences.
There may be a technological solution that can ease-although scarcely eliminate-this dilemma. Much of the ability of ruthless authoritarian regimes to survive depends on their ability to use superior military force. As the United States found in Afghanistan, however, it is possible to offset much of this advantage by transferring "equalizers" like the Stinger man-portable antiaircraft missile (MANPAD).
In a totally different context, Israel suddenly faced massive problems in fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon when Iran gave them advanced man-portable antitank guided weapons (ATGMs) like the AT-4 Kornet. As the United States has found to its cost, even short-range rockets and mortars can make a major difference, as can bombs and explosives.
Whether myth or reality, the Colt Arms Company is reported to have advertised that "God made man, but Samuel Colt made them equal." Light "smart weapons" can have much the same effect, as can limited transfers of short-range artillery devices and bomb-making materials. The U.S. problem with mortars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli problem with rockets, and the growing challenge of bombs and improved explosive devices (IEDs) are all cases in point.