In his Foreign Policy column this week, Marc Lynch, who has consistently argued against US military intervention in Syria and in favour of diplomatic efforts, writes that “US military intervention would very likely have made things in Syria worse.” However the only way in which he seems to see such a scenario as worse is that the US would have incurred the direct costs of military action.
This is not a small thing, and is of course a reasonable concern for the US if not for Syrians, but the acknowledged failure of non-military efforts to date also has a cost or the US, and continued failure could lead to very great costs indeed, including military ones, for the US and for allies in the region, including NATO.
Arguments about numbers killed in war are choked with contradictions between a desire to do justice to individual deaths and the impersonal anonymity of statistics. Worse, in these grim versions of the trolley problem, we see again and again how the dead of other nations are counted for less than ones own. But even if we allow the inevitability of this dehumanising abstraction, this contextualisation of the thousands dead in terms of national interest and strategy, the killings still count.
Returning to my comparison between rates of killing seen in the Iraq war and the rate of killing in Syria, in strategic terms the killing rate is relevant as an indicator of the likely outcome. The strategic aim for the US in both Iraq and Syria must be a stable state that doesn’t pose a threat to US interests. By extension, the aim must be for a state that largely respects the rule of law and is capable of enforcing it within its own borders. The higher the killing rate, the poorer the prospects for such an outcome in the near future.
The worse the killing now, the more likely a Somalia-like future where US drones pursue Islamist terror groups sheltering in the rubble of a fractured Syrian nation that is unable to maintain rule of law within its own borders.
While all can see much of the extent of failure in Iraq, a greater failure was possible, and was avoided, in the post-invasion civil war. If the US hadn’t backed lesser evils when the most extreme forces were at their height in 2006-2007, Iraq would be in a much worse state today. Now in Syria, by failing to back the more moderate elements in the uprising, the US is helping the extreme ones to flourish. This is a lesson from Iraq that Marc Lynch misses out. 
Marc Lynch also seems blind to lessons on military intervention in the recent history of Bosnia. In March 2012, Radwan Ziadeh published an article titled Have We Learned Nothing From the Nineties? Syria is the Balkans All Over Again. Ten months later, it’s worth re-reading. At the time Marc Lynch responded with an ill-judged tweet, “People do realize that Bosnia war eventually ended through diplomatic negotiations with Milosevic, right?”
This flip factoid wholly ignored the part played by NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force, the air campaign against Bosnian Serb forces carried out between 30 August and 20 September 1995 that belatedly brought an end to the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo and forced Serb leaders to negotiate. While the air campaign was successful in this, the negotiation ended in the Dayton Agreement which rewarded ethnic cleansing and failed to deter Milosevic from carrying out further crimes in Kosovo, leading to another NATO air campaign in 1999.
More usefully, in this blog post Marc Lynch points to some alternative views on Syria. They are A Syria Strategy for Obama by Andrew Tabler, Syria: Is It Too Late? by Frederic C Hof, and The Road Beyond Damascus by Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh.
The US and NATO’s Syria failures of yesterday and today can’t be allowed to excuse continuing failure tomorrow.
 Added 20 Jan: In his February 2012 policy paper for the Center for a New American Security, Pressure Not War (PDF), Marc Lynch does mention the 2006 arming of the Sons of Iraq militias, but uses it more as a lesson in unintended consequences than as an illustration of reducing violence by militarily strengthening a political centre against extremes. It must be remembered though that in February 2012 the estimated number of killed in Syria was a tenth of what it is today, and many still saw change by primarily peaceful means as a viable option. The relevant passage:
... However, providing weapons is not a politically neutral act. Those with greater access to the networks that distribute Western guns and equipment will grow stronger, politically as well as militarily. The arming of the Sons of Iraq in 2006, for instance, dramatically shifted the political power of competing Sunni tribes and families in unexpected ways, and the effects continue to unfold today. Better armed fighters will rise in political power, while groups that advocate nonviolence or advance political strategies will be marginalized.