The Syria interventionists want us to go to war. They're wrong.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
In December 1997, an Egyptian agent who had been vetted and polygraphed by his CIA handlers collected a soil sample 60 feet in front of the entrance to the El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, which the agency believed was connected to Osama bin Laden. The soil sample — apparently taken from land not belonging to El-Shifa — was analyzed and found to contain two-and-a-half times the normal trace of O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid, or Empta, a chemical precursor used in the production of VX nerve gas. Throughout 1998, intelligence analysts debated what to conclude from the soil sample, since it did not demonstrate whether the plant actually manufactured nerve gas. In July, the CIA recommended collecting an additional sample (that never happened), while on August 6, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded that "the evidence linking El-Shifa to bin Laden and chemical weapons was weak." The following day, two truck bombs planted by al Qaeda cells killed 213 people — including 12 Americans — at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and 11 more people outside the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
A small group of senior Clinton administration officials debated a military response, which included five targets in Khartoum nominated by the CIA. Eventually, those five were whittled down to two and then to one. On August 20, two U.S. Navy warships launched 13 cruise missiles — extra missiles were added to assure all the toxins would be incinerated — at El-Shifa, destroying it and killing its night watchman. When it quickly became apparent that bin Laden had no controlling interest in El-Shifa, Clinton administration officials settled on the single soil sample as being the strongest evidence to justify the attack. Six weeks later, President Clinton told historian Taylor Branch that the supporting intelligence included "soil samples, connecting an element in nerve gas found there and in Afghanistan at similarly high concentrations."
The Obama administration now faces its own self-imposed decision-forcing point about whether to respond militarily to the reported evidence that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons against the armed opposition, an action interpreted as crossing an administration red line. The administration’s position on whether Syria used chemical weapons reached the height of opacity two weeks ago when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "That’s a policy question and not one for intelligence to comment on." The intelligence community eventually sifted through what one official called the "shreds and shards of information" (soil samples, body tissue, photographs), with the normal dissension between agencies leaking into the press. Given the latest report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria — which found countless crimes against humanity, war crimes, and gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law — the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons would not be surprising, though it has so far provided limited battlefield advantage.
President Obama and White House officials quickly emphasized that they were deliberating potential military responses with prudence, in consultation with partners, and with no deadline. Before using force in Syria, President Obama must articulate his intended political and military objectives, and explain how military force could plausibly achieve them. Policymakers and pundits routinely provide multiple objectives — but they tend omit the crucial second consideration. Consider some recent justifications offered for intervening in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Prevent additional use of chemical weapons. Rep. Mike Rogers called for "action to disrupt [Assad’s] ability to deliver chemical weapons," while Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared last week: "It is clear that ‘red lines’ have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use. Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons." The objective here is to deny Assad reliable access to one of his lethal military capabilities, reportedly used in small amounts, but to ignore the artillery, airstrikes, and sniper fire responsible for the vast number of civilian deaths. Some scholars and analysts also contend that a stronger U.S. response is mandated to maintain and reinforce the long-standing international taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The difficulty with preventing the use of chemical weapons, or securing and consolidating the several dozen sites where they are held, is that it is a resource-intensive military mission, requiring up to 75,000 troops. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in January: "The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable. You would have to have such clarity of intelligence, persistent surveillance — you’d have to actually see it before it happened. And that’s unlikely." Dempsey recently declared that the Pentagon had completed the planning to secure Syria’s chemical weapons caches, but that he was not confident of success "because [Syrian security forces have] been moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous." However, while some Whit
e House officials warn that "all options are on the table in terms of our response," others vow "no boots on the ground," even though ground forces would be required to secure the chemical agents.
Pick winners. Sen. Lindsey Graham summarized this viewpoint on Sunday: "There are two wars to fight — one [is] to get Assad out of there…. The second war, unfortunately, is going to be between the majority of Syrians and the radical Islamists…. So we need to be ready to fight two wars." The theory is that if the United States intervenes militarily or provides weapons to "the opposition good guys," as Sen. Claire McCaskill described them, then Washington will have greater influence on the post-Assad, non-Islamic political leadership. Subsequently, Syria will likely align its policies with U.S. preferences.
Picking winners is not our responsibility and believing we can do so is wishful thinking. As one rebel recently told the New York Times: "We all want an Islamic state and we want shariah to be applied." It is doubtful that anything the West does today will markedly influence what role Islam plays in Syrian society or governance after Assad. Moreover, the religious faith of the people does not matter; what matters is the state’s behavior in those limited areas where Syrian and Western interests overlap, specifically in confronting transnational challenges. Finally, Syria’s future leaders will act in their own national interests with whatever international actor is required, regardless of who is arming or funding the revolution today.
Deter Iran and North Korea. Rep. Rogers warned this weekend: "More than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this." Sen. Graham more vividly predicted that with Obama’s indecisiveness, "we’re going to have a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program." Their implication is that, if the United States responds to Assad crossing Obama’s chemical weapons red line, Iran and North Korea will adhere to their own red lines.
There’s one big problem with this logic: According to a tally by Harvard University professor Graham Allison, Iran has already crossed seven red lines put forth by the international community. Furthermore, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin noted this weekend: "Today it can be said that the Iranians have crossed the red line set by Netanyahu at the U.N. assembly." In addition, Israel leaders have repeatedly stressed, as Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz declared on Sunday, "We are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter." If Tel Aviv does not draw conclusions from U.S. inaction in Syria with Iran, why should Washington?
In October 2006, President George W. Bush warned Pyongyang: "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action." When the Bush administration learned that North Korea — starting in 2001 — had clandestinely helped Syria construct a "carbon copy" of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, it responded to both governments with silence.
Furthermore, if Kim Jong Un or the mullahs in Tehran are watching closely, it is hard to see how enforcing a partial no-fly zone over Syria with Patriot missile batteries already installed in eastern Turkey would be a demonstrable deterrent. Assuring the physical destruction of Iran’s (or North Korea’s) nuclear program is a significantly more intensive and riskier military intervention, which would include attacking their integrated air defense systems, command-and-control facilities, known nuclear sites, and other regime assets.
Ensure U.S. credibility. Beyond Iran and North Korea, many policymakers and publications contend that the world is carefully judging America’s credibility and reputation. The Washington Post editorial board declared: "If Mr. Obama waffles or retreats on the one clear red line he drew, U.S. credibility across the region will be severely damaged." Rogers asserted: "We have lost the confidence of the Arab League." Meanwhile, Sen. Saxby Chambliss warned: The world is watching. We’ve got 70,000 dead people in that part of the world as a result of Bashar al-Assad. We as America have never let something like that happen before. We’ve taken action."
Leaving aside the multiple historical errors in Chambliss’s statement, using or threatening to use force to "signal" is a fool’s errand. Recall that many advocates of intervening in Libya’s civil war believed U.S. action would show other dictators that they should embrace democratic demands for change. John Kerry, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared: "The military intervention in Libya sends a critical signal to other leaders in the region: They cannot automatically assume they can resort to large-scale violence to put down legitimate demands for reform without consequences." Columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed: "If not for this intervention…the message would have gone out to all dictators that ruthlessness works." Since Assad incorrectly interpreted the intended message from ousting Qaddafi, why would other potential friends or adversaries assess U.S. strength and credibility based on Syria?
Prevent revenge. During a recent Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. John McCain warned Obama administration officials that Syrian children in refugee camps "will take revenge on those who failed to help them. We’ve failed to help." At a later hearing, he claimed: "We are breeding a generation of people who will — as was articulated to me by a teacher in one of the refugee camps, these children will take revenge on the people who refused to help them." McCain and others appear to believe that — unlike other opposition movements around the world that demand and fail to receive U.S. assistance — Syrians have deeply ingrained memories and are especially predisposed to seek ve
ngeance. This revenge is also selective, because nobody contends that vengeful Syrians will try to kill Chinese, Brazilians, South Africans, Indians, or other powers that refuse to intervene militarily or provide arms.
It was the contention of every policymaker this weekend that America is "doing nothing" in Syria. The United States has provided $385 million in humanitarian assistance, $250 million in non-lethal aid to opposition and civil society groups, and supports a massive clandestine effort to feed citizens and supply hospitals in the rebel-held areas of Syria. At the last international pledging conference for Syria, China vowed merely $1.2 million for U.N. aid agencies. If perceived inaction is the catalyst for vengeance, then future generations of Syrians should presumably target Beijing before Washington.
Protect Jordan. The contention is that the United States and regional partners should limit the potential for sectarian spillover into Jordan, since it could irreversibly destabilize the constitutional monarchy of King Abdullah II. On Thursday, Sen. Graham noted that swift U.S. action could "contain this fighting so that the King of Jordan does not fall…. The kingdom of Jordan has been a stabilizing influence in the Mideast. Jordan is under pressure from the effects of Syria." On Sunday, Graham again warned that "[Abdullah’s] kingdom could fall, and he’s a moderating influence." Given that 86 percent of Jordanians have an unfavorable view of the United States, it is unwise and unrealistic to expect that deploying the U.S. military to "do something" in Syria will ensure the Hashemite Kingdom’s survival.
The humanitarian impulse to apply military tactics selectively in Syria, or provide advanced weapons to specific rebel groups is understandable given the horrors unfolding on the ground, overwhelmingly committed by the Assad regime. The United States could "level the playing field" with its vast conventional military capabilities, and policymakers claim these capabilities come with an obligation to use them. As Rep. Keith Ellison declared on Sunday: "I don’t think the world’s greatest superpower, the United States, can stand by and not do anything." Sen. Dick Durbin stated it more simply: "Something has to be done."
However, if you examine what that specific "something" is, it becomes apparent that U.S. military power cannot plausibly achieve it — not with the level of commitment and risk that policymakers are willing to accept. A U.S. official told Reuters this weekend: "There’s a lot of analysis to be done before reaching any major decisions that would push U.S. policy more in the direction of military options." Advocates of military intervention need to define their strategic objectives in Syria and outline how the use of force can accomplish it. So far, no one has done so.