On Topic: Syria

The most explosive, headline-grabbing hot-spot on the American news for the past few weeks has been Syria. Should the US intervene with military force after the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashir al-Assad’s government? Does the United States need allies, a UN resolution, or Congressional approval? What are the implications of military action?

An important rule of bloody civil wars is that there is rarely, if ever, an obviously optimal solution. In this case I would argue that there are only a series of bad options, and it is not clear which is the least bad. I don’t have an answer, but here is a run-down of some pros and cons, as well as some discussion of morality and legitimacy.

First, and most importantly: around 100,000 people are already dead after two and a half years of fighting. This means that, to some extent, American military action is too late. At the same time, there are millions of Syrian civilians who still could be helped by a cessation of hostilities–although it’s not clear that a US strike would produce such an end. The point of this brutal statistic is that condemning the alleged killing of over a thousand people by chemical warfare looks ridiculous when the “international community” has stood by as more than eight times as many people have been killed. And that is because it is at least a little ridiculous.

At the same time, there is good cause for alarm about the use of chemical weapons. They are banned for a reason: they are highly lethal weapons that can be used to kill large numbers of people, they are not easily controlled, and they have horrifying effects on survivors. A military response that indicates general disapproval of their use may produce positive consequences in the future. At least in theory, it could make other nations that possess chemical weapons less likely to use them. However, the real problem here is probably that any country is even allowed to have chemical weapons. Perhaps action in this area would be more effective than lobbing cruise missiles. But such negotiations do no good for the Syrians, and the choice I just posed is false. President Barack Obama can both try to stop the current bleeding (through military or peaceful means) and work to destroy all chemical weapons. However, any action on the latter is very unlikely.

The principal concern with any US military action should be whether it will achieve a defined goal. In this case, can aerial strikes prevent President Assad, either technically or out of fear, from using chemical weapons again? And, as a follow-up, will US action be likely to reduce the number of people killed in Syria in the future by bringing an end to the civil war? Finally, the State Department’s question: how does any action affect US interests? The last, I suspect, will be the most important determinant of any military action. It very often appears to be the deciding point.

The technical question is impossible to answer with certainty. Even the US military probably has less information than they would want about the location of potential targets at this stage. Surely President Assad’s government has moved their command and control installations and their chemical stockpiles. The US may be able to destroy some capabilities, but it seems increasingly unlikely that the American military will know where to bomb.

As for the psychology of the situation, it is also difficult to determine. I suspect that President Assad may be deterred from future chemical weapons use, but not from continuing to wage war on current terms. Only a crippling set of strikes or significant American intervention on the ground would force him to the negotiating table. As it is, he has very little to lose by continuing on the current path. The segments of the population alienated by his conduct of the war are lost to his side, and there is no chance of medium-term national reconciliation.

It seems unlikely that a foreign intervention that is not significant enough to affect the course of the civil war (i.e. determine its outcome) will save a significant number of Syrians. Of course, saving one life is precious, but the political calculations in Washington and other capitals are unlikely to work in that way. To risk something, President Obama and others must expect that they have a reasonable chance of a significant gain. As with just about everything so far, we can’t know, but I am doubtful that any low-level intervention will have determinative importance in the strategic military situation.

President Obama pulled an interesting political trick by roping in Congress to vote on action in Syria. He spread out potential blame for whatever decision the United States makes (although, of course, not making a decision to act now is effectively a decision to not act in the short-term), but probably has not spread much of the potential credit if the decision turns out to be popular. Americans don’t like Congress as a body and will be more likely to credit him for any bit of good news. At the same time, the President can say that he deferred to the nation’s representative body, sharing any potential blame if the situation worsens or if US intervention goes badly. It was a clever, conservative move.

Given the opposition to intervention in Syria among the public, it seems unlikely that there will be US intervention. Add to this the time delay since the alleged chemical attacks, and the warning to the US from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and there is an increasing set of pressures against an American strike. There is no clear “good” option. Good luck to Congress and the President in picking the least bad one.

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