politics & governmentterror & war

The dawn of Syrian conflict

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On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that President Bashar Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons against hundreds of innocent civilians. It looks like we are once again faced with an all too familiar decision to make – continue to let atrocities occur and the situation escalate, or take meaningful action that deescalates the situation but subjects the United States into another overseas military snafu.

It seems that President Obama is going to meander between resolute assertiveness and disciplined temperance, and attack a defined number of fixed military instillations across the country. Right now the United States, along with France and Great Britain, has a small fleet of battleships and submarines off the coast of Syria in the Mediterranean Sea. Generals are awaiting the order to attack these instillations. But there doesn’t seem to be any strategic benefit from this.  An inexplicably projected attack on fixed locations would do nothing to impede Assad’s attack on the civilian population, considering he can move himself, his personnel, and much of his artillery around the destruction. Such attacks would do nothing to eliminate or secure the chemical weapons used in the last several months. The only thing it would do is embolden Assad and needlessly agitate other players in the region.

It seems no matter what we do or don’t do, there will be dire consequences. So if we can’t effect a peaceful outcome, then why not refrain entirely? At least that way there are no American casualties and not a borrowed dime spent. Many argue that eventually the Syrians will sort it out on their own anyhow.  But the brutal civil war has gone for over 2 years now, and has only escalated.  One hundred thousand! people have died, and there are 1.7 million refugees pouring into bordering countries destabilizing the region.

Others argue that the gassing of civilians is no different than the atrocities that took place in Darfur, which we did not respond to with military action. But the U.S. should have taken action in Darfur. And even though we didn’t, the death of over 350 people by nerve gas in the span of several hours in Syria is even more alarming than the barbaric civilian attacks in Darfur.

Regardless of the trajectory of the conflict or the precedent to act, how can we as a moral country let this happen? Today, most people in the world and many in our own country, contend that we are NOT a moral country. But this is a jaded perception and cynicism at its worst. I could spend a whole blog contesting this prejudice, but just look at all the money, aid, and supplies we provide to Africa through PEPFAR, with little if any strategic motive at all. Wouldn’t now be an opportunity to showcase this benevolence? And isn’t it important to fight flagrancy even if we are not applauded for it? Is there no good for goodness sake in the world anymore?

Even if you are a cold hearted pragmatist, there is still a national security interest in taking action in Syria. As cynical as other people in the world are of U.S. motives, I argue that governments, terrorist groups, and organized crime are not. There is a palpable understanding among the disreputable principals across the globe that if you do something outrageously egregious, then you risk reprimand and interference from the United States. I explored this concept in my blog Ominous showdown transcends the war on drugs, in which a major drug lord wanted nothing to do with a captured U.S. agent because of the headaches it might bring him. Qaddafi knew the United States had no strategic interest in Libya, but decommissioned his chemical weapons programs anyway, in part due to a sense that Bush would make his life miserable based on idealistic objections alone. It is important that these miscreants feel we are watching.

All of these arguments are independent of the fact that there has been use of weapons of mass destruction, which could proliferate across the region and the globe. In order to really stop the use of chemical weapons, secure their proliferation, and bring an end to the civil war, the west has to remove or help remove the regime that has amassed and used them. But the United States cannot afford another protracted security mission.

The Afghan and Iraqi wars, which produced little stability and cost mass treasure, seemed to have taught us that nation building does not work, and that victory is unattainable. But first let’s put Afghanistan and Iraq into proper perspective. The Taliban was removed in less than 3 months. Afghanistan was relatively secure and building toward political stability until Pakistan enabled a renewed Taliban insurgency in the late 2000’s. Saddam Hussein’s regime was removed in almost a month, and today Iraq is an ally to the United States with a democratically elected leader. If victory is the defeat of the despotic regime then both wars were huge successes. The real lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq might have therefore been that victory needs to be less ambitiously defined and that nation building might not be relevant.

The argument in the case for post-invasion security in both wars was that the U.S. would have to stay and secure the country until stability returned, otherwise each country would fall into chaos. But would it have been so bad if the U.S. had left Afghanistan for example, after only a few months? Couldn’t we have backed the Northern Alliance or Karzai, and returned for another invasion a year later if the Taliban had regained power? Eventually if you keep knocking down someone’s card house, they are going to stop building it. Why can’t we pepper a regime that reaches critical mass with intermittent decapitations? Because we will be seen as invaders? It’s better than being seen as occupiers. Wouldn’t particular revolutionaries that we endorsed gain state-wide support after a few ousted radical regimes?

I remember one Pentagon official saying that our enemies have an advantage because they can just wait until we leave, to come back and cause havoc. But what would happen if we flipped the script on them? We could take out a regime, support an interim group for a few months, and then leave. Then wait and see if they came back into power, and do it again a year later. They would either make the necessary concessions and reformations or not come back at all. It is an audacious concept, but it seems no less precarious than inaction or sustained intervention.

There are some that say it was the rebels that used the gas. However, this is naïve or biased analysis from those who dislike the prospect of a conflict with Syria. Of the two parties involved, Assad had the resources and means to deliver the strike. He himself, and no other rebel group, threatened to use chemical weapons in the first place. UN envoys were shot at by Assad’s military when they first went to Damascus to investigate the attack. A government trying to absolve itself from this atrocity would not have been so anxious to keep out those who might exonerate him. There are others that say radicals will take charge of the country just like they did in Egypt. However, there are larger and better positioned sets of moderate rebels, like the Syrian Free Army, who we can side with. And I would rather risk having a newly disorganized radical group that might not survive the first few years of power, than having an entrenched leader who acts a proxy for Iran and Hezbollah and who can perpetuate the civil war for years while intermittently gassing his own people.

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