Much has been made recently about the war in Syria, especially the horrible chemical weapons attacks which have killed and maimed hundreds if not thousands of Syrians. That is, of course, how it should be; we as Americans, with our Western values and the premium we put on human life, should always feel outrage at indiscriminate violence visited upon innocent people. And of course the use of chemical weapons is seen as an international taboo; a “red line,” to use the words of our President. Given the seriousness of the situation, a question lingers over our international policy: what, if anything, should the US do about the carnage in Syria?
My answer to that question is, “nothing.” Or at least, “not much.” I will explain this assertion in the following paragraphs by examining US interests, the Syrian combatants, policy options, and potential outcomes.
Everything we do in our relations with other countries should begin with a consideration of US national interests. The US has a lot to lose and very little to gain by intervening militarily in Syria. It is unclear what, if any, key interest will be protected by unilateral US military action against Syria. There may well be legitimate US national interests at stake but they have yet to be effectively explained by those who continue to beat the drums of war. Moreover, even the “simplest” military option will be expensive, complicated, and risky, given the possibility of political, economic, or even military repercussions from Syria, Iran, Russia, and even China. And of course, there is always the risk that limited intervention today turns into something much larger tomorrow. Given all of these considerations, it seems apparent that the risks to national interests outside of Syria do not outweigh any potential national interest served inside of Syria.
We also need to consider who is doing the fighting in Syria. The situation in Syria is often cast as a struggle between an evil dictator and the noble, freedom-loving rebels. This binary worldview is at best myopic, probably naïve, and most likely dangerous. This is because the choice in Syria isn’t between “good” and “bad,” it’s a choice between “bad” and “worse.” The American people need to understand that this “freedom” that the rebels seem so intent on acquiring is actually the “freedom” to be MORE extremist, anti-American, and unstable. Take, for example, the Al Nusrah Front, which is one of the most effective rebel organizations operating in Syria and is one of the frontrunners to seize control in major portions of Syria if Assad’s government falls. . It’s also an Al Qaeda front, specifically designated as terrorist organization by the US State Department. Many other Islamist factors are also vying for power. Given a choice between the two, which is better for America’s long-term interests: a violent, brutal but stable dictatorship under Assad, or a violent, brutal, and unstable fundamentalist dictatorship under Al Qaeda?
“There’s a broad naiveté in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve.” The preceding quote, attributed to Lieutenant General (Ret.) Greg Newbold, a former J3 Joint Chiefs of Staff, is indicative of how little the US political elite actually understands about US military power, and underscores the ease with which policymakers, most of whom never served in the military themselves, commit our nation to war. This naiveté and willingness to wage persistent war is, perhaps, to be expected in a nation where all the costs of warfare are born by “someone else” and the realities of war are reduced to sound bites tweeted back and forth between stories of the latest sports scores or Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance.
The most popular option bandied about by this political elite is either missile strikes or some kind of no-fly zone. This option is attractive because it gives the illusion of “doing something,” without actually “doing anything” and is the most risk-averse choice to make if one is bent on doing “something.” These types of tactics are useless because attacking from the air is never going to induce regime change, which is purportedly the desired endstate for the US in Syria. Airstrikes and no-fly zones didn’t work in Bosnia, in Iraq, or in Afghanistan before 9/11. The only thing that really works from a military perspective is to go in on the ground hard, and for a protracted period. Are we really willing to commit to that?
We have a huge credibility problem going into Syria, and we’re making it worse day by day. To begin with, going after a Muslim country for WMDs is exactly why we went into Iraq, and we all know how that turned out. We are making the situation worse by claiming, as we have, that there is “high confidence” that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, yet at the same time publicly admitting that there is “no smoking gun.” Which is it, America? Are we sure, or are we not sure? And even if we are sure about the chemical weapons issue, why are we suddenly so concerned about one specific series of attacks that killed a thousand or so people, out of a war in which 100,000+ have already died?
Now, back to the air strikes. What are we trying to accomplish in Syria, and why? If Assad is the problem, and we’re contemplating air strikes against his country, are any of those bombs or missiles directed against Assad personally? Ah, that’s right, there’s that pesky US’s unilateral restriction on assassination, also known as Executive Order 12333. Why do we continue to cling to this outdated policy? Is it more moral to kill one leader or to allow tens of thousands of his people to be killed? Why is it OK to target the members of Syria’s military, including ones who have not engaged in war crimes, but spare the man responsible for it all? If we drop bombs or shoot missiles into Syria, the very first one to be “weapons free” should have Assad’s name on it—or we shouldn’t shoot one at all. The restriction on assassinations doesn’t carry over into war, so if Assad needs to go, then the President should get a declaration of war from Congress, and the first person killed in that war should be Bashar al Assad, President of Syria.
Back when he was Candidate Obama, President Obama observed that the President did not have unilateral authority to commit the nation to war. I think the President’s statement is completely accurate. Yet, that’s pretty much what he has done by declaring chemical weapons a “red line,” whatever that means. I’m still not sure why he declared chemical weapons to be the trigger for US military action, perhaps he was betting that Assad would never be crazy enough to use them. But he has, and now the President has painted himself, and thus the nation, into a corner with his rhetoric, and an attack of some sort against Syria might end up being nothing more than a political face-saving adventure, reminiscent of the missile strikes against Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, and about as effective.