The Syrian Conundrum

Syria is all over the news lately, and much like Libya before it, I haven’t heard a lot of talk focused on the correct issues.  Most of the discussion centers around attaining UN or congressional approval, what the U.S. will strike, proof Assad is a crazy man, or the timing.  Then, in the middle of this week, the UK decided they weren’t going to play.  The administration’s response to this news provided the first solid words of sanity after more than two years of misguided foreign policy adventures.  National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, “President Obama’s decision making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States.”

Yes.  That’s the responsible route.  The only problem is that the administration is not making a case for what, exactly, that means.  They’re just words on a page.  A sound bite designed to sound presidential.  All discussion is predicated on proving that Assad used nerve agent, followed by options for retaliation.  Not one word has been directed at whether retaliating is in the best interests of the United States or not – and that should be the driving force behind any application of military power.  Since we completely ignored this fundamental truth when we attacked Libya and removed Ghadaffi (When the administration says they aren’t out to “remove Assad”, don’t believe it.  They said this exact same thing in Libya…), I expect no different from the administration in Syria.  Therefore, I’ll take a stab at it to clear the air.  Just what is in our national interest in Syria?

In my opinion, it’s four-fold, and I’ve numbered them by priority (highest to lowest):

1.  Prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

2.  Prevent regional destabilization.

3.  Preserve the United States’ credibility and legitimacy

4.  Promote the United States’ ideals of democracy and humanitarianism.

Obviously, there could be a hundred other priorities, but these are the ones I believe are most important (notice there’s nothing about oil on this list).  Using this list as an optic, we should then look at our various options for Syria and determine which, if any, will further the goal of each.  Only then should we begin looking at covert or overt military operations and target lists.  Analyzing this any other way is having the tail wag the dog, with the U.S. striking just because we can.  Sort of like blowing up an aspirin factory in Sudan.

I’m going to dissect these one at a time, and understand that I’m focused purely on US interests, regardless of how unpalatable the solution.  Emotion does not factor into my calculus.

1.   Prevent the proliferation of WMD

The administration is frothing at the mouth about Assad having used chemical weapons on the Syrian people, discussing military strikes to coerce him into not employing them again, however, the greatest threat is if those stockpiles are taken out of Syria.  If that happens, make no mistake, no amount of bluster or military deterrence will prevent a jihadist from using them against our allies or us.  It will be devastating, which is why this should be the number one priority for the United States.  So, how do we do that?  Basically, there are two options:

A.   Overthrow Assad and take control of the weapons stockpiles.  This option will entail a massive boots-on-the-ground effort to secure each stockpile and render it safe.  It cannot be done from the air, and there is a risk that in the ensuing rush to secure them, we would still lose some amount of chemical weapons to rebel forces.

B.   Allow Assad to win.  This is pretty simple.  With Assad in power, the weapons remain under his control.  After the dust has settled, begin to bring pressure on him to have them destroyed, just like the U.S accomplished successfully with Libya (before we decided we’d rather just get rid of Ghadaffi).

Bottom line:  this choice is relatively easy, in my opinion.  In order to ensure our greatest national interest with the least amount of sacrifice, we should do nothing.  Let Iran, Hezbollah and Russia secure Assad from falling.  Yes, I know it’s a repulsive thought, but not nearly as repulsive as the same type of chemical attack videos coming out of Syria springing forth from small-town America.  Understand, I’m not saying help him win.  I’m saying let him win.  After our track record of propping up dictators in the Middle East, from ousting Mosaddegh in favor of the Shah in Iran to turning a blind eye to Mubarak’s abuses in Egypt, we in no way want to look like we’re siding with Assad.  But that’s an easy fix.  He’s got enough friends with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.  Let them be the bad guys.

2.   Prevent the destabilization of the region

Two years ago, the quickest way to ensure this would have been to support the moderate, indigenous rebellion with lethal and non-lethal aid, helping them to overthrow Assad.  That option is now out the window since the majority of fighters are Islamic radicals with trans-national ties to other terrorist groups.  They are literally a bunch of thugs who eat the organs of regime soldiers they’ve just killed and behead civilians, whose bodies are then fed to the dogs, simply because they’re Christians.  To put it bluntly, allowing Assad to be overthrown by this bunch will almost guarantee destabilization.  First, since there is no overarching governance able to take over after Assad is gone, there will be massive bloodshed as the various militias now turn on each other in a fight for supremacy.  All who say we should target Assad and “support the moderates” don’t have a clue what it would entail to engender success – namely boots on the ground in a massive stability and support operation – and we in no way are willing to commit to such a sacrifice.  Hell, this administration doesn’t even understand that it IS a sacrifice that must be conducted.  To them, it’s simply an option.

When confronted with the accusation that this is looking like Bush’s run-up to Iraq, the administration bristled and stated in no uncertain terms that they had no intention of getting into a messy quagmire, and that is precisely why they “ended the war.  Period.”  Funny, I think someone forgot to tell the Iraqis that the war was over.  Statements like this scare me, as it shows a complete and fundamental lack of understanding on what is required to secure our national interests after conducting a counter leadership campaign.  Saying that we ended the war in Iraq simply by leaving is the same as a man standing in the rain, then, upon growing tired of getting wet, comes inside and announces, “I made it stop raining.”   We did the same thing in Libya, getting rid of Ghadaffi and “supporting the moderates” by doing nothing once he was gone, and all that got us was Benghazi.  The French got it a little worse.  They had to invade Mali, fighting to prevent the overthrow of the government from the Jihadists who left Libya, armed with Ghaddafi’s weapons.

Eventually, left to their own devices (since there’s no way we will intervene), the new government of Syria will be an Islamic one, which, if not outright terrorist, will have overt sympathy for al Nusra Front, Al Qaida in Iraq, and a host of other terrorist groups.  My prediction is that the first destabilizing event will be the slow boil in Iraq turning into a cauldron as AQ begins to attack with the cross-border support of Syria, now in the hands of Sunni Islamists.  The Shiite Iraqi government, of course, will fight to stop this, and if they aren’t in the pocket of Iran today, they will be tomorrow as they turn to that regime for help (since there’s no way on earth we’ll ever re-enter Iraq).  On top of this, the Islamist Syrian regime will begin to make trouble in Lebanon, which Hezbollah, of course, will fight.

I could go on and on, discussing the influx of refugees to Jordon, Turkey and Lebanon, the support for Hamas against Israel, or the wild-card of the Kurds using the fallout to attempt an independence movement spanning Turkey, Iraq and Syria, but the bottom line is that having this group of rabble rousers topple Assad will virtually guarantee a bad outcome for the United States and a destabilization of the region, with concrete impacts to our homeland from the breeding ground of terrorist training which would likely occur.  Hell, the head of the FBI thinks that’s already happening.  His biggest worry about Syria is that Americans are going over there and fighting, learning a thing or two, then coming back here and becoming “home grown” terrorists.  At this stage, arming the rebels is outright delusional, even if it’s just the moderate fighters.  For one, the moderates will not be a power after Assad is gone, so arming them is tantamount to arming the terrorists.  For another, there are already reports that the moderates are selling what we give them outright to the terrorists. 

Once again, letting Assad win would be the better option, as distasteful as that might be.  People use Iraq as an illustration of what not to do, but the administration believes the lesson learned is to overthrow the regime and then run, staying far away from the fallout regardless of the repercussions, and this is wrong.  The true lesson is not to overthrow the regime at ALL unless you’re prepared for the sacrifice of nation-building that follows.  And, as shown in Libya, we aren’t willing to do that.

3.   Preserve the United States’ credibility and legitimacy

This one is a little sticky, mainly because Obama has already uttered all of his statements about “red lines”, and it appears pretty clear that Assad has decided to ignore them and use chemical weapons on civilians.   Unfortunately, words have meaning, and we’re pretty much boxed into a corner with respect to our credibility because of what he said.  Make no mistake, Iran and North Korea are watching closely, and they will draw lessons from the rhetoric (this link from STRATFOR is probably one of the best articles I’ve read about the situation).  Do nothing, especially if it looks like others have talked you out of it – IE Britain not becoming part of a coalition, or Iran barking about retaliation – and it will engender massive problems down the road.  Remember, the number one national interest is the prevention of the proliferation of WMD, and that also applies to Iran.  Coincidentally, we also have a “red line” in Iran as it applies to their nuclear ambitions, and make no mistake, this rhetoric in Syria is being analyzed by the Mullahs.  In short, we could be pushed into military action in Iran precisely because they don’t believe we’ll use military action and will ignore our so-called “red line”.  Or worse, we just sputter, and Iran builds a successful nuclear device.

On top of this, our legitimacy in the region will be hammered if we don’t react.  Already at a low point, doing nothing after the heinous slaughter of innocent civilians by chemical munitions will sink us even further.  People talk about the death that has already occurred and that an additional thousand isn’t that big of a deal, but they are wrong.  WMD and chemical munitions are different, on a whole different scale of destruction, and by doing nothing we’re basically saying we have no issue with its use, which will embolden other despots around the world.

Because of all of this, there will have to be a military strike against Syria.  Unfortunately, it’ll have to be something that’s strong enough to show we mean business about chemical munitions, but not so strong that it alters the balance of power vis a vis Assad and the rebels/terrorists.  Just hitting an aspirin factory won’t cut it, but targeting Assad himself would be going too far.

4.   Promote United States’ ideals of democracy and humanitarianism

This will always be in our national interest, and is precisely why Senator McCain is routinely screaming for action.  In his mind, this is priority one, and takes precedence over any other national interest – IE, stopping the slaughter of innocents is worth the proliferation of WMD.  Not in my mind.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, as I’ve shown in the second priority, there’s more to stopping the slaughter than simply arming the rebels or conducting a no-fly zone.  That may help oust Assad quickly, but it will also engender follow-on chaos and death.  I’m really unclear why McCain and others are all fired up about the long-term death and destruction in Syria, especially when juxtaposed against other parts of the world.  Sudan has had a legitimate genocide for over a decade, with the leader of that country – Omar al Bashir – having been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, and we’ve never lifted a finger to stop that.  The president of Sudan is an indicted war criminal, and McCain has never preached about military intervention in that country, even though there are much fewer potentially adverse repercussions.  Makes me scratch my head, but for Syria, in the end, promotion of US ideals doesn’t necessarily mean arming a bunch of terrorist thugs.  Two years ago, I might have stood by him, but times change.  The best way to handle this now is to continue and expand non-lethal aid in the form of food, medical supplies, etc., to help the people affected by the fighting, but not to help the fighters.

In the end, without a comprehensive analysis of what’s in our national interest, any military action will have unintended or counterproductive repercussions.  It’s really easy to stand in a global crowd and spout proclamations that “Assad should go”, but without analyzing the future impact, it’s foolish to engender that result.  We pursued that in Libya and no good resulted.  As I’ve shown above, Assad’s fall is the last thing we should want right now, given we have no stomach whatsoever for a stability and support operation following that action – by the administration’s own words. 

It’s also precisely because words have meaning that I’ll support a limited strike against Syria.  Aggravating, yes, but necessary given that Assad has decided to flaunt international prohibitions against chemical weapons and Obama has put our credibility on the line regarding such use.

That credibility may be needed very soon with Iran.

Comments

  1. Al Sailer says:

    Good analysis Brad. Syria is a no win situation and the only way to maintain stability in a tribal culture trying to drag the world back into the 7th century is a strongman at the top. That’s why we should support the military in Egypt also.

  2. Steven Gibbs says:

    The closest thing I’ve really seen linking Assad to the possible WMD is that one of his minions was calling around to see who did it…hardly a smoking gun. The claim that launch sites were in Assad controlled areas is also weak. From what I’ve seen his Army only controls what it actually stands on. I remember the video of some Syrian tank unit motoring at high speed thru ruined parts of some dust colored urban area. Pulling up in some sort of rope a goat formation and blasting with their main guns at already blasted buildings. I think the term is “making rubble bounce”. Then of course they lose a tank or two to the rebels, because the army was playing the game “if we got tanks we don’t need no stinking infantry”.
    My point being I bet the front lines are more than fluid, they are tissue thin.
    Seriously, the Syrians should sue whoever trained them, like maybe the GRU.

    • Brad Taylor says:

      Basically, you’re saying one of two things: a) there was no chemical attack, or b) Assad didn’t do it (“hardly a smoking gun”).

      Both, obviously, are potentially accurate, but I think it’s a forgone conclusion that Sarin nerve gas was used to kill over a 1000 people. As for b) if it was done by the insurgents, that brings a whole host of new issues to the front, not the least of which they now have a stockpile of nerve agent and the delivery mechanism to employ it. We’d better hope it was Assad that employed the weapon. Luckily, others have looked at the evidence and decided that, while it is not out of the realm of possible, the insurgents employing chemical munitions is highly unlikely.
      http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/08/27/216172145/is-it-possible-the-syrian-rebels-not-assad-used-chemical-weapons

      • Oh no, Brad. I accept it was used. I just don’t know who, or if even Assad is in control of all his forces. Not that one time or other we haven’t seen a general officer officer go off the rails or even try to sell off much of the south to the Spanish

  3. Bill Dickinson says:

    Brad, I enjoyed your assessment!

    Without US troops on Syrian soil I struggle to see how our involvement does anything but contribute to destabilization. It is the time for wise leaders to allow the world to judge atrocities and try the accused.

    This is not our time for this fight.

  4. Bob Fraser says:

    Maybe Sen. McCain missed the brief on Sudan because he was playing poker on his iPhone. Regardless, I’m still not convinced that military action is necessitated by our need to preserve our credibility and legitimacy. I would hope that there is an option that does not invite retaliation from some of the aforementioned groups. Additionally, Russia has asked us not to get involved militarily, and considering their influence in the region, we have reason to abide. If we want to maintain legitimacy, we should listen to Gen. Martin Dempsey, who earlier this week said, “The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.” I’m not saying do nothing, but I am saying that we should pursue a non-military option that can hopefully accomplish something worthwhile.

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