Saving Syria — and Ourselves
America needs to plot a middle path for military intervention.
Last night, the many contradictions in Barack Obama’s strategy toward the Syrian conflict finally came into sharp focus. He reiterated his commitment to deterring any further use of chemical weapons, but said nothing at all about the Assad regime continuing to kill the innocent by more conventional means. No mention was made that, since the sarin attack three weeks ago, regime forces have kept up their offensives against the rebels throughout Syria, inflicting heavy casualties. In a war in which the death toll has now reached well above 100,000, the president’s policy does nothing to stop continued use of the weapons that have already accounted for 99 percent of the killing. Last time I checked, deliberate targeting of noncombatants was still a war crime — whether caused by chemical or conventional munitions.
But there is something even more troubling than the president’s too-narrow view about exactly when the killing of innocents requires a response: His speech last night made clear his belief that "we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force." This is a most curious admission, given that he and so many in his administration have been saying for more than two years that "Assad must go." A rationale for threatening military action in retaliation for WMD use is, as the president noted, to shore up American credibility as a world power. What does it do to our credibility when, after years of tub-thumping for regime change, the frank admission is made that the commander-in-chief doesn’t believe he has the power to tip the balance in a civil war? Let’s just say it doesn’t help — and may result in Assad really declaring open season on the rebels now. The president is particularly confusing on this point, given that the United States and NATO relatively recently made a decisive difference in the Libyan civil war — with, as administration members now intone like a mantra, "no boots on the ground." Thus, the problem seems more one of will than capability. Still, reluctance to act in concert with our rhetoric is quite damaging to credibility.
The obsessive attention to keeping our servicemembers well out of harm’s way is paradoxical as well. If a cause is, as President Obama said last night of the Syrian crisis, "so plainly just," the question then must be, "how just before you are willing to risk any soldiers’ lives?" Americans have fought and died in many conflicts that featured far less moral clarity than the Syrian situation — with the 60,000 Americans killed in Vietnam heading up that list. If the cause is just, the most effective military means should be pursued, not those deemed most acceptable in political terms. To be fair, the president may be acting out of an admirable reluctance to go to war at all. His speech hinted at this when he said: "I’ve spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars…. Our troops are out of Iraq, our troops are coming home from Afghanistan." The problem with these statements, though, is that the president, so focused on ending our involvement in overseas conflicts, is willing to do so even if the wars in those places rage on. We are out of Iraq today, but al Qaeda is back and the country is burning. And if we ever pull completely out of Afghanistan, heaven help the Afghans.
Given all the aforementioned contradictions and paradoxes, it should be abundantly clear that the Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at averting an American attack by calling for placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control is something of a master stroke. Assuming acceptance of the Russian proposal by all sides — Damascus has already agreed — the process will take a long time to carry out. This will be time during which the war that Bashar al-Assad is currently in the process of winning can be won without fear of outside military intervention in support of the rebels. In this case, stand by to see a continuing stream of fearful images of Syrians suffering at the regime’s hands. And if the president finds, eventually, that he can take no more, and decides to launch his envisioned sharp but limited bombardment, Syrian insurgents are going to suffer more at the hands of a wounded regime that is nevertheless still in power.
Wise heads in the White House have no doubt parsed this problem, which prompts one to wonder whether the real plan is to hit regime forces very hard, turning the tide in this conflict. As the president noted in his speech, our military "doesn’t do pinpricks." But if this is really the direction in which we’re headed, then the problem of our pursuing the same war aim as al Qaeda pops up. As Nibras Kazimi presciently pointed out in his Syria Through Jihadist Eyes, published just before the war, al Qaeda and other zealots see the Assad regime as "the perfect enemy." Defeating the "intelligence barons and soldiers who run the country," as Kazimi labels them, is a goal of many — not only jihadists. But keeping an al Qaeda-friendly government from power after the fall of the regime would require greater military involvement in Syria, and for a long time.
Given that President Obama’s strategy will not relieve the suffering of the Syrian people if the military action he proposes is too light, and that our principal enemy, al Qaeda, will reap great dividends if the action taken is heavy enough to topple the Assad regime, the logical thing for Congress and the American people to ask should be: "Is there a middle way to proceed?" Those with memories of Clinton-era strategy will frame the question in terms of "triangulation."
What would a third way look like? If the goal is the protection of the Syrian people — the "plainly just cause" to which the president alluded — then the military action taken should start simply with giving air cover to areas controlled by anti-regime forces. This would prevent Assad’s air force from bombarding these people, and protection of this airspace would not require a lengthy suppression of regime air defenses. If Assad used his long-range missiles instead of attack aircraft, then counter-missile fire would be used against the regime’s launchers. And if Assad resorted again to chemical weapons, then the case for a more full-bodied response would be far easier to make. Russia and Iran would have little choice but to cut Assad adrift if he used WMD yet again.
The attractiveness of this middle-way alternative to the president’s plan lies in its conception of "military intervention" as being about using intervening forces to shore up rebel defenses, not to strike immediately at the regime. Bashar al-Assad would thus have what the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling called, in his classic Strategy of Conflict, the "last clear chance" to avoid a catastrophic escalation of violence. This approach, ratcheting up the violence only if Assad tried to do so first, would leave room for diplomatic efforts to bring the war to an end. One possible outcome might be the enactment of a ceasefire, followed by a negotiated settlement that would move the country more toward democracy while keeping Assad as head of state for a while — but making sure to eviscerate the power brokers around him who tamped down his own liberalizing tendencies when he first came to power.
Obtaining such a result would require the rebels to be willing to make peace with Bashar al-Assad remaining in office — something President Obama, as of last night, seems willing to accept. But a peace agreement would also require the regime to see most of its organizational strength dissolved. If one side or the other — or both — fail to seize the chance to end this tragic war along these lines, then the protection provided by American and allied forces — and there will be allies in support of this approach — would still be in place, there at least to reduce the human suffering. A worthy goal in its own right.
Overall, the third way I have advanced would avoid the many contradictions that bedevil the Obama plan. Some may say that seeing this alternative work all the way through to a negotiated peace along the lines I have suggested is quite a longshot. Yes, probably so. But it is a plan with much better odds of succeeding than President Obama’s threatened shot across the bow.
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