If you read my previous post on The Case for Intervention in Syria, you have the commonly-ignored information necessary to understand the Syrian situation. What follows are the three reasons that it’s in our national interest to intervene in Syria, and the way forward in that country
Deter chemical warfare use
Deterring chem use is both of long and short term national interest for the US. The world has never seen a nuclear weapon used in anger since Nagasaki. Besides the fear that one mushroom cloud would beget many others the international community has made first use of nuclear weapons unacceptable. It’s part of the reason we haven’t seen India, Pakistan or Israel use one.
For much of the time after WWII, US policy stated that the use of chemical weapons on our troops could be answered by tactical nuclear weapons. It caused the Russians and Saddam to pause. The times we saw chemical weapons used were when there wasn’t strong international outcry against it, e.g. Iraq vs. Iran, and Saddam against the Kurds, which only became common knowledge sometime after the attack.
There is undoubtedly utility in spanking a dictator if he uses chem against his people. To not do so invites more of it, or worse, the acceptance of chemical weapons as a weapon of war. Down the road one can see US forces “slimed” (military slang for being attacked by chem) and a nuclear response being considered too severe because of the previous use of chem. I think it’s in our interest to keep chemical weapons use up there with nukes.
Reinforce American credibility
The congruence of US official statements and action are fundamental to US credibility. The strength of US credibility has both a long and short term national interest.
The President, whoever he is, speaks for America whether one likes him/her or not. For at least the next three years, his words and actions ARE America’s credibility. The ugly truth is that the administration wrote a check that it didn’t want to cash, which explains our late response (this isn’t the first time Assad has used Chem) and our clumsy “stop and go” current approach.
Iran, AQ & Syria are watching with interest on how we respond to the use of chem, and if our words mean anything. This isn’t just the US vs. Syria. All of our enemies and most of our friends are watching.
Assad’s 11 year-old kid characterized our pause as a victory, on the same day that the Syrian press (an Assad mouthpiece) highlighted how Obama’s “leadership” looks like retreat.
Most fail to grasp how dangerous a lack of US credibility actually is and how it invites more conflict down the road. Clinton’s run for the exit in Somalia instead of staying the course when Adid was on the ropes was later cited by Saddam and Bin Laden as evidence to support their actions. Saddam miscalculated a decade after we kicked him out of Kuwait (a previous miscalculation) expecting the UN and his allies (Russia, France and Germany) to keep him safe, and our adversity to casualties causing us to withdraw from Somalia when the going got tough.
He could have EASILY avoided an invasion by allowing the UN inspections HE AGREED TO. Why did he ignore the obvious? Because there were enough signs before, and chatter from our home grown pacifists and isolationists, to give him the confidence to bet that the US wouldn’t pull the trigger. The US lacked credibility. Many minimize the importance of credibility. I point to Pakistan allowing us to overthrow a government they set up, and Libya giving up its WMD programs when they saw us in Iraq.
There is another red line looming out there: Iran’s nuclear program. Failure to act in Syria assures another showdown with much greater costs to us and the world. What isn’t in doubt is, if America does nothing after its President says chem use is a red line, then that will impact the calculus of other nations in future actions.
Influence what happens in Syria
A nuanced reason to intervene is to develop and maintain an ability to influence what happens in Syria. Without an ability to influence a situation, one is no better off than a passenger in a sled… and you may not like where you’re going. Look at how our lack of influence in N. Korea allows them all the initiative.
A punishing missile strike eliminating Assad’s Air Force helps the secularist rebels, a group we should be throwing our full support behind vs. training and equipping 50 at a time in Jordan. First, it’s the right thing to do. Secondly, helping secularist Syrian rebels whether they win or lose provides us an indirect tool to influence whoever “wins” in Syria. Helping secular rebels also creates a very real third choice wholly ignored in the debate: a secular post-Assad Syria.
As I’ve pointed out, the Islamists have been able to garner influence through possessing effective weapons and using them well against Assad’s forces. There’s no magic there, and that process can be implemented among the secular rebels.
Some missing post-civil war Syria analysis
One of the most glaring shortcomings present in the discussion of Syria is the almost complete lack of analysis of what a post-civil war Syria may look like, and what the subsequent costs of inaction may be?
Many assume an Assad victory will result in a return to Syria as it was before the war, but there is no evidence to support that. After a civil war costing over 100,000 lives, wholesale destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, the creation of two million refugees (10% of its population) and one of every three Syrians driven from their homes, it requires a suspension of logical thought to assume Syria will return to life as normal, as the mainstream media (MSM) and most pundits assume.
Beyond Syria, where do the Islamists go and what will they do? Iraq? Where do the secular rebels go? Jordan? What are the ramifications to these nations, their neighbors and the region? Most importantly, what will Iran/Hezbollah/Russia extract from Assad for saving his bacon? After seeking shelter on a Russian warship at one point and hanging on only because of the Quds Force and Hezbollah, Assad may only be a figurehead. He wins, Iran wins and Iran may very likely control Syria’s chem.
Fast forward six months and the Ayatollahs feel threatened. “Syria” threatens chem attacks on Israel or US troops in Kuwait. The Ayatollahs won’t care about a bunch of nuked Syrians, especially if they are blame-free. Iran could threaten chem warfare at any US action. N. Korea is already China’s puppet to a degree, jerking our chain whenever it suits them. Why have another? How likely is it that, since Hezbollah has played such a central role in keeping Assad in power, that it hasn’t already or soon will take control of some chemical weapons?
The analysis for an Islamic rebel victory is almost as poor. No doubt an Islamic Syria isn’t good for us or any state neighboring Syria (and Iran), but to wish away the Syrian people is the same error the Muslim Brotherhood made in Egypt. AQ may kill those that resist. Maybe that will be effective, but where’s the analysis of how a civil population that rose against Assad and absorbed over 100,000 dead is going to accept an Islamic dictator? There’s actually substantial evidence of Syrians rising up against Islamist rebels.
What about the fates of the losing secular rebels? Where do they go, and with what impact? How willing will they be to go back into Syria to try to overthrow the Islamists after we didn’t help them? How does not supporting them reinforce or support moderate Islam? How does that counter Islamist propaganda that the West doesn’t care when Muslims are killed?
Here’s a HUGE ONE that’s been untouched!!! Where’s the SOF-centric/UW analysis of helping the secularist rebels take back the revolution? What about reversing the trend that let Islamists assume so much influence because of their effectiveness against Assad’s forces? What about a post-Assad plan, somewhat similar to how we helped the contras of Nicaragua, which were a force in eventually undermining the Communist Sandinista regime?
The way forward
Since the latest Assad chem strike, I have promoted not sending US troops into Syria, but instead taking out his air force and helping the secular rebels become the predominant force among the opposition. Part of the price for help is giving us any chem they capture.
Taking out Assad’s air force is a sound first step. A program to train and arm secularists is key while helping them firm up a ruling council (the FSA leadership in Turkey is a start). Training and equipping more than 50 secular rebels in Jordan at a time needs to be accelerated, and may be a role for SF or the DoD instead of the CIA (in Jordan or Turkey). Somewhere down the road it may make sense to establish a no-fly zone if Assad escalates or doesn’t negotiate, and then maybe a safe zone in Syria proper. The process is incremental, not shake and bake, and tough to do since our attention span is so short.
A key factor is that we can’t defeat Assad too quickly. Moving too fast before secularists can organize allows things like the MB to take charge in Egypt. It took two years for the Islamists to come to the forefront in Syria while we sat on our hands. It shouldn’t take two years to set up the secularists for success, but it isn’t going to happen in 3 months like Obama did in Egypt.
The sad truth is there is a price to pay for waiting two years to act. Waiting longer won’t make the situation better. I have no doubt that Hezbollah will have or already has some of Syria’s chem. Keeping chem out of Islamist and Hezbollah’s hands might be a great role for Israel, which I’d bet they will do no matter what.
The ISW’s brief on precision strikes on Syria describes how to significantly degrade Assad’s air capability. It would consist of an initial 72 cruise missiles strike on six airbases to make them temporarily unusable, with a follow-up strike of 109 cruise missiles to destroy each aircraft, bunker or pad. This would largely eliminate Assad’s 100 plane air force.
Assad’s air power is a capability he has used extensively, and which cannot be reliably countered by rebel forces. Losing it would be a significant blow operationally and symbolically. It would take years and at least a billion dollars for Assad to replace his aircraft. The immediate impact would be helping the rebels. Secondly it enhances the long and short term security of Israel, Jordan and Turkey. It is also the first step, should it become necessary or possible, to establish a no-fly zone, or a sanctuary for secular rebel forces.
What we most need in Syria is a long-term strategy with stated realistic, achievable goals. That requires deep, thoughtful, honest, nonpartisan analysis to specifically determine our interests, and a plan to protect and promote those interests. Doing nothing may be the answer, but promoting it without looking at potential costs for non-action is as bad as our failure to analyze what Iraq was going to be like after Saddam, or as wise as our inaction when Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan.
The same people that favored action or inaction without analysis were correspondingly hard or easy to find depending on who was President. That’s not the way to make foreign policy. The costs are planes being used as WMDs or a decade of war.
(Featured Image Courtesy: airforce-technology.com)