America's Syria Folly

The Syrian civil war is clearly a tragedy. Yet, America should draw only one red line: against involvement.

The United States faces no serious military threat today, yet is constantly at war. The national government seemingly searches for new conflicts to join. A gaggle of politicians, analysts and pundits, most of whom never heard a gun fired in anger, faithfully lobby to bomb, invade and occupy the enemy du jour. Today U.S. naval vessels are clustering in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Syria the latest target.

Traditionally Washington did not look for wars to fight. Throughout America’s history there have been innumerable conflicts around the globe. Yet the United States remained aloof, recognizing that Washington’s overriding duty was to protect the American people—their lives, liberties, prosperity and nation.

Measured on such a scale, there is no cause for entering the bloody Syrian imbroglio. That nation’s implosion poses no meaningful threat to America. The regime has little capacity to harm the United States or to resist the overwhelming retaliation that would occur in response to any attack. Syria’s chemical weapons have little more military utility than high explosives and nothing close to the killing capacity of nuclear weapons, possessed by Washington in abundance.

The possibility of radical Islamist insurgents, who have taken some American journalists captive, gaining control over territory is more worrisome, but is most likely in the event of U.S. intervention against Assad. The conflict has important regional overtones, but while stability in the Middle East may be advantageous for America it is a rare occurrence and not one worth attempting to impose through the destabilizing process of war.

Friendly states that fear the impact of Syria’s disintegration, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, should deal with the consequences. Washington should not act as the globe’s 911 number, putting Americans at risk whenever someone somewhere calls.

Of course, the Syrian civil war is a tragedy. The regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad is evil. The Syrian people deserve better. Yet these obvious truths do not make Syria unique. World history is filled with awful conflicts involving bloody national implosions. Murderous dictators continue to march across time. Ironically, many of them have been supported—and currently are supported—by Washington.

Civil wars may be the worst conflicts, often with few genuine good guys. Observed Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides.” The rebels are united only by their opposition to Assad. Some groups have ended up at violent odds with one another, and the strongest factions appear least interested in a liberal, democratic future for Syria and most interested in using Syria as a vehicle for attacks on Americans. Dempsey doubted that any of the organizations would promote America’s interests.

Nor is the contest likely to end after the first extended round. If Assad survives, he still may never reestablish his control over the entire country. If not, de facto partition is likely to emerge, with more than a little skirmishing to determine boundaries and resources.

If the rebels win, they, too, are likely to engage in a new round of fighting for dominance over the whole or parts. Moreover, there is likely to be even more score-settling concentrated among the ruling Alawites and other minorities, such as Christians, which generally have either backed the regime or remained neutral. Already extremist insurgents have been targeting vulnerable groups.

A similar phenomenon occurred in Kosovo, where Washington’s ethnic Albanian allies engaged in their own campaign of violent ethnic cleansing against the losing ethnic Serbs. Murder and mayhem occurred despite an allied occupation with American troops. Washington’s most recent experience of the aftermath of military intervention was Iraq, which descended into violent chaos despite the ongoing U.S. occupation.

The last argument for intervening in Syria is the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons. “Apparent,” because while Damascus has no moral compunctions about slaughtering its opponents, the Assad regime has no obvious reason to use such small quantities of chemical agents—enough to spark international intervention, but too little to achieve any useful military purpose. In contrast, insurgents have an incentive to use captured supplies in an attempt to draw in the West. And in judging U.S. intelligence claims about Syria it is impossible to forget Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs.

Assume, however, that the Assad regime used chemical weapons. The best U.S. response would be no response. First, President Barack Obama has no legal authority to strike Syria, absent an imminent threat, without congressional approval. Second, the use of chemical weapons does not justify war. Syria is not a party to the claimed “international consensus” against chemical weapons, having never joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. Secretary of State John Kerry called chemical weapons “the world’s most heinous weapons.”

Actually, nuclear weapons, of which America has the largest arsenal, are far more destructive and barbaric.