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.
Still, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson claimed that the use of chemical weapons “cannot be tolerated.” Why not? Horrid and awful these weapons are, but their end result is no different than the abundant use of missiles, bombs, artillery shells, and bullets. Some one hundred thousand may have died in the Syrian conflict so far. Those apparently killed by chemical weapons make up less than one percent of that total.
Although classed as a weapon of mass destruction, chemical agents do not have the capacity for “mass annihilation,” as Robinson claimed. They are difficult to deploy and not uniquely deadly. Explained John Mueller of Ohio State University, in World War I “it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal.” At least 99 percent of the millions of battlefield deaths in that conflict were caused by other means.
Americans should express their horror at war, not any particular weapon of war. And the best way to exhibit that horror is to stay out of new conflicts absent a compelling justification. War is not just another policy option to display moral anger. It is deadly force that harms those who employ it as well as those against whom it is employed.
The last argument for war is credibility. The president painted a red line. If he doesn’t back up his threat, who will take him seriously in the future? It’s a fair contention, except that American presidents routinely make threats on which they don’t make good. For example, for years U.S. officials have insisted that it is absolutely unacceptable for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has gone ahead and developed nuclear weapons.
Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution claimed that reestablishing U.S. credibility by punishing Syria would help deter Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. However, America’s willingness to strike any nation for any reason actually increases the incentive of nations like Iran to develop nukes as the ultimate deterrent. A few cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets are more likely to encourage than discourage Iranian nuclear developments.
Any military action would have counterproductive effects. Significant strikes which crippled the regime actually would make widespread use of chemical weapons more likely if the regime takes desperation measures to survive; widespread dispersal of chemical stockpiles is more likely if the regime nevertheless collapses. Worse, the sort of marginal response contemplated by the administration—enough to “punish” the regime but not threaten its survival—is likely to be seen as the pretense of enforcement. Warned Eliot A. Cohen of the School of Advanced International Studies: “we would look weaker yet if we chose to act ineffectively.”
Finally, now may be the president’s last chance to say no before heading down the famed slippery slope. Half-steps will effectively commit the U.S. even without a conscious decision being made. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni observed: “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.” To attack the Assad regime and have it survive is far worse than to avoid involvement and have it survive. Thus, every new intervention will enlarge the Greek Chorus chanting “credibility.”
Washington should erase the chemical “red line” and in the future put U.S. credibility on the line only when substantial U.S. interests are at stake. American officials will never be taken seriously if they promise war for interests that others perceive as peripheral or even frivolous. Yet to take military action on behalf of peripheral or frivolous interests would be irresponsible even if doing so marginally enhanced U.S. credibility.
The case for nonintervention remains compelling. It is not in America’s interest to get involved in a conflict that looks to be a toxic mix of Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Libya at their worst. Washington will make far more enemies than friends, and will find it hard to exit, no matter how gingerly it enters.
The American people oppose intervention. Even after the chemical weapons claims, the vast majority of Americans want to stay out of Syria, which means any military campaign will lack a strong political foundation. Iraq proved to be an unnecessary war which weakened the U.S. and strengthened Iran. In Afghanistan retaliation for 9/11 morphed into a decade-long nation-building project. Libya caused little pain but offered no gain. And Syria? Americans justifiably want peace.