The world community, including the United States, is at a crossroads about the right steps to forcefully prevent the further slaughter of civilians in Syria. There are many good reasons to intervene — to stop the death, detention and probable torture of any number of innocents; to support the democratic right of people to consent to rule by a freely elected government; and to avoid a repeat of the U.S. inaction that allowed Iran’s dictatorship to prevail in 2009.
There are just as many reasons not to intervene — the sovereignty of nations; the moral hazard of providing U.S. troops where our national interest does not dictate; and the uncertainty about those we would be helping take power. All the while, do-nothing diplomatic talks and easily ignored cease-fires continue to fail because the talking doesn’t change the facts on the ground.
But is there another way — something more effective than merely clamoring for calm, but less direct than intervening militarily or arming and training the rebels?
In fact, there is. Throughout the ages, the answer to such situations has been to raise an army for hire and send in the mercenaries. This was done throughout the great power struggles of the first and second millennia across the globe, and in more recent decades across Africa. Libya’s Gadhafi tried to use mercenaries to defend his regime just last year. We also placed many guns-for-hire in Iraq and Afghanistan, provided by the likes of Triple Canopy and the company formerly known as Blackwater.
Perhaps the most relevant example here is the World War II American Volunteers Group, better known as the “Flying Tigers.” Prior to Pearl Harbor, when America was not yet party to World War II, these combat pilots’ actions were known but not officially endorsed by the White House under President Franklin Roosevelt. They were pure mercenaries, pilots who resigned their U.S. military commissions to serve in a foreign air force for high pay — some received $600 a month in 1941 dollars and with the promise of $500 more for every Japanese plane they shot down.
The pay-for-service model suited the needs of the day. It allowed skilled fighters to side-step the moral and legal hazard of sending uniformed U.S. troops, whose duty is to uphold the Constitution by fighting our enemies, not to intervene in missions that lack a direct national security rationale.
One potential roadblock of note is the Neutrality Act of 1794, a centuries-old congressional effort to ensure the then-fledgling U.S. was not dragged into wars by citizens acting as mercenaries in conflicts where the United States was not engaged. However, this law, rarely enforced, reflects outdated thinking about the modality and nature of declarations of war. It also treats violations as a misdemeanor. If the imperative to save lives is so strong, Congress or President Obama could surely find a path around it, including a waiver or other injunction. Beyond that, the government’s only role would be to work behind the scenes to have Saudi Arabia and other interested nations pick up the tab, much as they did during the process of countering the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Given the perceived imperative to intervene in Syria, but the countervailing duty to respect state sovereignty and the lack of United Nations sanction (due to perpetual vetoes by China and Russia), mercenaries might well be the best prescription, Neutrality Act or no. They would allow the U.S. to avoid arming the locals directly, about whose character and intent we know little.
This would not resolve the underlying question of who comes to power after the regime falls, but it would allow for a humane defense of the Syrian population without committing America officially or putting American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at risk.
J. Michael Barrett, the CEO of Diligent Innovations, is a former Director of Strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council and a former Naval Intelligence Officer.