Syria remains in the news, due more to its proximity to Israel and America’s preoccupation with all things Islamic than to mere body count. Two years of civil war in a country like Zaire or Laos would not cause the papers to dedicate more than a brief note to the ongoing conflict. Now the Syrians have pressed another American hot button: the alleged use of chemical weapons, which has been menaced for over a year.
While various intelligence agencies, including the Israelis, British and American, have indicated that the use of the banned weapons is “very likely.” The reports remain unsubstantiated due to the difficulty of acquiring uncontaminated samples from the attack for testing. The number of victims appears to be small – especially relative to the scale of the butchery being perpetrated with purely conventional armaments – again making the detection of the agent used and the attacker difficult. Burnt by the experience of crying wolf over Iraqi WMD, no one in the intelligence community is rushing to conclusions.
Legislators are being less cautious. As soon as the news broke, calls went out from hawks in America (and Europe) that this was a clear violation of the “understanding” brokered by Russia with the Syrian government forces last June: that chemicals would not be used in the civil war in return for the West not intervening militarily. This agreement was preceded by President Obama’s famous remark, that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would change America’s calculus of intervention. Words that now come back to haunt the President and his speech writers.
Certainly, the hawks were tripping over themselves to demand immediate action by the President against the forces of Bashar al Assad. In their haste, they didn’t wait for confirmation by any official body of the US government or international agency; that didn’t seem necessary. In fact, the UN reports that it has reason to believe that the Sarin used seems likely to have been used by the rebel forces rather than against them. The possibility that the Syrian Army has lost control of some portion of their chemical arsenal is perhaps more disturbing than the possibility that they have decided to use it themselves.
The President is once again under the most intense pressure to intervene and he is under attack from both sides of the political spectrum. Those on the right call him weak and indecisive, underline the threat that continued instability poses to the region, and point to the growing strength of the jihadist factions in the rebel army. They say that the President should be arming the “right” rebels, establish a no fly zone to protect parts of the country and now, with the news of the possible chemical use, to destroy Assad’s arsenal of WMD’s before they are used or lost.
Those on the left call the President weak and indecisive, lament the terrible cost in human lives that two years of the most savage civil war have wrought on the Syrian people, and demand that the U.S. put a stop to the killing. By toppling the regime of Bashar the Butcher, the disparate factions of the rebels and those currently supporting the government can be reconciled and democracy established in the country through the auspices of international agencies and under the protection of U.N. peace keepers.
Both sides have some strong arguments on their sides. Syria is indeed in danger of anarchy and even break-up. Jihadist groups are gaining ground as religious and ethnic hatreds are inflamed by the enormous bloodshed. The scale of the humanitarian disaster is truly catastrophic: a recent report to Congress cites estimates of up to 70,000 killed since March 2011 and another 5 million people displaced or fled abroad as refugees. That is more than a quarter of the nation’s 22 million inhabitants. But while making these arguments, both sides also suffer from severe fallacies.
The right suffers from selective amnesia and in their overestimation of what can be accomplished through military power, especially air power; they seem to have forgotten every lesson learned at such terrible cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. The left lives in a fantasyland if they believe that democracy will spring up thanks to the mere presence of a UN commission in Damascus, or that foreign intervention in a civil war has ever been bloodless, or that after two years of bloodshed on a stupendous scale, the various factions will drop their arms and be civil to one another at the behest of the Americans.
Regardless, the President can do no right.
Red Lines in the Sand
Would the use of chemical weapons by the government or the rebels truly constitute a game changer for the U.S.? The cynical – but correct – answer is a qualified “no”. However terrible convulsive asphyxiation may be it is no more unpleasant a way to die than being disemboweled by shrapnel, having your internal organs liquefied by the shockwave of an explosion, or having your brains dribble out the back of your head from a rifle bullet. To that extent, Senator John McCain is correct in saying: “why should chemical weapons be a red line when he’s slaughtering and massacring, raping and torturing, his own people?” Dead is dead. William T. Sherman said in another conflict on the footstep of the modern age: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; you might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war.” Even if conclusive proof is provided that sarin was used by Assad’s forces, it should not automatically provoke a military response.
The problem with the “red-line” statement is that it sounds so definitive: use chemicals and we intervene, or something to that effect. It is meant to sound that way, in order to have a deterrent effect. However, its very impreciseness is also a disadvantage. The “red line” is a threshold, but the use of chemical weapons is on a sliding scale. Where exactly is the threshold to be placed on that scale? The President has his own internal assumptions about what constitutes sufficient provocation: how much chemical agent, on whom it is used, and how many people are actually killed. A single chemical bomb in the desert that kills no one could be considered a “use”, but even the most belligerent hawk could hardly argue that it constitutes sufficient cause to bring the United States into war. On the other hand, a prolonged bombardment leaving thousands of civilians dead and radically upsetting the balance of power in the civil war probably would be.
To say that a use of chemical weapons by either side is not a prima facie case for war is not to imply that it can or should be ignored. If the Syrian government has used Sarin, President Obama could very well decide on a warning: like a volley of cruise missiles to destroy a Syrian air base (which would also serve to even the odds somewhat for the rebels, who lack aircraft). There are many possible actions short of full-scale invasion that the technological advantages of stealth aircraft and precision-guided weaponry make available to the U.S. President Assad would understand that the next warning would be significantly worse.
So far, the President has pursued a wise and prudent policy towards Syria. He recognizes the limits of U.S. power; he understands better than the vocal minority the true mood of the country, which remains against intervention; he recognizes that the U.S. geopolitical interest is in the “pivot to Asia-Pacific”, not in a return to the Middle East. Furthermore, the President knows he is lacking the fundamental elements of success that any form of intervention would require:
- Intelligence on the various rebel factions, their key leaders, their ideologies and goals, their true motives and allegiances. Without this information, how is he to judge who are the “good guys”, assuming there are any to begin with? Who then to arm and how to ensure that they used properly? When the CIA armed the mujahedeen with Stinger missiles during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980’s, many of those missiles ended up being sold to the Iranians and even to the Soviets themselves for cash;
- Accurate and up-to-the-minute information on the nature and location of the Syrian chemical arsenal. The Syrians are unlikely to volunteer this information themselves and it doesn’t take much effort to prepare the chemical munitions and then disperse them. It is an impossible task to find a few hundred chemical bombs or artillery shells amongst all the thousands of conventional munitions that are being store, prepared and utilized in the conflict;
- What is the endgame in Syria and how will it be implemented? How to prevent the country from descending into sectarian anarchy or breaking up? It is easy enough to say “topple Assad and set-up a new government” – but there is no guarantee that anyone in Syria will accept such an imposition, or even if they do, live with it any longer than necessary. “Setting up a government” involves more than appointing an interim president and calling for elections: it will require boots on the ground to provide stability to that new government, to prevent a renewal of the civil war and the degeneration into anarchy; it will require massive investments to repair even the basic infrastructure that would allow a government to begin operating; it will inevitably incur the enmity of large segments of the Syrian population, who will feel that their interests are being insufficiently accounted for and will resent all this coming from foreigners and (to most) infidels.
I don’t have the benefit of access to the President’s briefings, but I would be very surprised if all of these questions could be satisfactorily answered by our intelligence agencies. Without these answers, we would probably do more harm than good.
Many have argued that the U.S. has a strategic interest in preventing Syria from becoming a failed state; from preventing the entry, or now at least, the takeover of Syria by jihadist fighters; to prevent Assad’s chemical weapons from being lost, sold or even given to non-state actors (Hezbollah); to prevent the victory of Bashar al Assad and thus a triumph for Iran. These are then used as the justification for war, and on the surface, some of the arguments are compelling. But most of them don’t hold up against further scrutiny.
- Syria is already a failed state: the question now is whether U.S. action would be more of a help than a hindrance in reconstituting it. It is by no means clear that this would be the case. Toppling Assad is by no means synonymous with guaranteeing a viable government and peaceful society in Syria, much less a democratic or pro-Western one. If anything, the fall of Assad is likely to lead to further violence, as the members of the rebel alliance realize that they now have nothing in common and everything to gain by attempting to seize power. Being armed to the teeth and hardened by war, the temptation to use force rather than negotiate will be overwhelming. At this time, we could expect not only political fighting between factions, but sectarian bloodshed and plenty of private violence as well, as scores are settled and the most vicious and depraved take the opportunity to satiate their lust for loot, murder and rapine. Do we really want to step into that and would we be able to prevent it?
- The jihadist fighters are already there and gaining strength. For the U.S. to prevent them from seizing power, it would have to destroy their military effectiveness. We have now moved from “toppling Assad” and “humanitarian intervention” to killing the very people fighting against Assad. That is very reminiscent of the situation we found ourselves in during the Iraq debacle;
- Preventing the use and proliferation of Assad’s chemical arsenal is indeed in our strategic interest, but the military destruction of that arsenal before it can be used or dispersed is impossible to guarantee. Air strikes alone could not assure the destruction of the stockpiles; it would require ground forces to go through and finish the job. Some analysts are estimating that up to 75,000 troops would be necessary to achieve this goal.Additionally, I’ve already mentioned the problem of even locating the chemicals: once placed in the delivery munitions, it would be like finding needles in haystacks. And it would take time; time enough for the Syrians to hand over large quantities of chemicals to Hezbollah, especially if they were convinced that they were going to lose them. The best way to ensure that Assad’s chemicals stay under his control is to ensure his victory – which I am not advocating, by the way, only pointing out the fallacy in this argument as a justification for intervention.
- As for preventing an Assad victory, it is not clear that that is even necessarily in our best interest. If the primary interest is in breaking the link between Hezbollah and Iran, and damaging Iran’s power in the Levant, then Assad must go; but if a stable Syria is paramount, then Assad might be the best option of the lot. We have put up with him for years already and whoever replaces him might be worse, and will certainly be less stable. Disclosure: The stated policy of the Administration and State Department is to achieve a political settlement that includes the removal of Bashar al Assad from power.
While the U.S. does have important interests in Syria, it would be hard to argue that we have any vital ones. Syria is not Saudi Arabia. A Syrian failed state would be very bad for the U.S.: on the other hand, it would be catastrophic for Turkey, Israel and the other Arab states. It is these nations which have the most at stake in the outcome of the civil war on their doorstep, and they should be leading intervention efforts. They have been, within their means. Turkey has set up humanitarian relief zones on the Syrian frontier, as has Jordan; Saudi Arabia has been a key supplier of arms to the rebels.
Up to now, however, Syria’s neighbors have been reluctant to become more involved. None of them wishes to see Syria disintegrate: Jordan fears the spread of radicals into its own territory; Turkey has no desire to see a Kurdish homeland carved out of North-Eastern Syria. On the other hand, none of them has the desire to act decisively, though Turkey has the military power to do so if it wished. Both Turkey and Jordan are fearful of the popular backlash at home if they invade a fellow Moslem state. Iraq is in no condition to look beyond its own borders and is undoubtedly happy to see jihadists in Iraq pulling up stakes and moving into Syria: perhaps Iraq will be the more peaceful for it. Yet they are happy to call for, even demand, American action.
Intervention? Yes, but…
Foreign intervention in the Syrian civil war is already an accomplished fact. Look at the pictures below:
Syria did not build those T-64 tanks. Syria did not build that MiG-21 jet. Syria did not build that Mi-24 gunship. The Syrian Armed Forces have been lavishly equipped and supplied from Russia, and continue to be so. They are also receiving arms from Iran. These weapons are being sold to them on “easy terms” which is to say “use ‘em up now and we’ll talk price later.” Without the generosity of his foreign patrons, Mr. Assad’s war effort would have collapsed in a few months. In a strange replay of the Spanish Civil War, the Western Powers are once again wringing their hands and arguing about a non-intervention regime while the totalitarian states are laughing at them and sending arms by the plane-load to their fellow dictator.
It is easy to see why Mr. Putin is so adamant a defender of the sovereignty of small states: he is not going to be paid for all his equipment if the rebels win. Nor are they likely to continue buying arms from the Russians. Strangely, Mr. Putin was less scrupulous about the sovereignty of small states when he invaded Georgia in 2008.
Should we intervene in Syria? I believe we should. The moral and strategic implications of the Syrian civil war are far greater than anything at stake in Libya. By not acting, the United States is abandoning the leadership role that the world demands we play, and which we must assume however reluctantly. However, I do not believe we should act hastily or unilaterally. Furthermore, I do not believe that this should be seen as a “U.S. intervention” regardless of how deeply we are involved. President Obama should be the motivating power and guiding hand that organizes the coalition that will topple Assad and restore peace to Syria.
There are a number of conditions which must be met before the “go ahead” can be given for intervention:
- The Arab League must agree to lead the coalition, at least nominally. They have already granted the Syrian National Coalition Syria’s seat in the League, but it that recognition needs to be supported. That means authorizing the use of force against Syria;
- The Security Council should also issue a resolution authorizing the use of force to stop the war. This is not an absolute pre-condition, because it will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. How to get Russia and China to agree?
The Russians must be made to feel that they are the key player in this (which they are) – it is possible that a deal involving some sort of financial compensation for the Russian military equipment given on credit to Assad’s regime can be arranged; it might also be beneficial to have a Russian contingent to the peace-keeping force. Having the Russians installed along the coast and in the An Nusayriyah would place them in the main Alawite and Christian communities: these minorities might actually prefer Russian soldiers to Sunni Muslims of other nations. It would place Russia near the naval base of Tartus, where the Russians have basing rights, and would allow them to maintain significant influence in the country after the fighting, which is what they are after.
As for the Chinese, it seems unlikely they would agree under any circumstances to vote in favor of force. They are too wary of setting precedents which may come back to haunt them. Perhaps the only way to succeed would be to take an extreme hardball stance with them: if they veto such a resolution, the U.S. will begin to regularly and strenuously take up issue which affect China more directly, such as the South China Sea and China’s recent (illegal) incursion into Indian territory in the disputed Himalayan frontier. If handled in complete secrecy to avoid any potential loss of face, it just might work;
- The ground troops for the occupation forces must come mostly from Arab and Moslem states. Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, perhaps Saudi Arabia. These states, but most especially Turkey, must agree to provide the troops. There will be fighting and there will be losses, despite the U.S.-led air campaign that will precede the occupation; these countries will not be very willing to cooperate;
- Bashar al Assad must be given a last chance to step down, accept exile in whichever country is willing to take him, and thus avoid prosecution as a war criminal. The same goes for anyone in his Administration and military willing to accept the Security Council resolution;
- Humanitarian assistance, technical support and reconstruction funds must be collected, organized and available before the intervention begins. The last thing we want is a repeat of the fiasco in Baghdad, with the lights out for weeks, no food or water for the returning families and no plan or authority in place.The availability of reconstruction funds is critical; they cannot be allowed to trickle in in driblets. The Syrian people must see that the coalition and interim government are competent and working for them: reconnecting the lights and water, rebuilding the roads, schools, mosques and hospitals, getting police and courts back into operation. You can be sure that the extremists will be doing the same in the communities they control.
Unless the proper preconditions are secured, the United States and her allies risk stepping into another fiasco. Even with the best of plans and the support and best wishes of the whole world, returning Syria to peace and normality will be an enormous challenge.
“Why We Fight”
Troops, funds, international legitimacy: all of these are key components to intervention, but they are not enough. It is still necessary to explain to the American people and to the people of our allies why they must make a sacrifice in treasure and perhaps blood for Syria. It is equally necessary to explain to the Syrian people why they should accept the meddling of foreigners in their affairs, if we hope to keep their support for any length of time after the fighting ends.
It is not enough to say that we are acting in our interests. Everyone takes that for granted. The pursuit of national interests without regard to other, higher principles is no longer acceptable in any case. Cynics and believers in realpolitik will smile at that statement, but it is true nonetheless. Even a cynic will acknowledge that the moral advantage in war is indispensable. Stopping the horrific bloodshed is certainly a good starting point: but the Administration must do more to bring home the scale of the tragedy and place a human face on it:
In previous conflicts, Americans considered it normal and necessary for the President to elaborate those high moral principles that could have overcome our natural isolationism to force our intervention in world affairs. President Wilson had the 14 Points, which changed the nature of the First World War from just one more imperial European war into a fight for democracy and self-determination (much to the annoyance of the Germans). President Roosevelt had the Four Freedoms and the brilliant support of Frank Capra and his series of documentary films, Why We Fight. Those declarations were effective wartime propaganda, without a doubt: but they also become the cornerstone of the modern international system. We assume a certain inevitability about the system we live in, a normal bias when your sample size equals one; but make no mistake, there is nothing inevitable about today’s world. Without victorious American participation in the world wars, there is no reason to think that the European international system of imperialism and “devil take the hindmost” competition would have fundamentally changed. That is certainly not what the French and British negotiators in 1918 set out to accomplish.
That is not the case today. The legacy of Vietnam is one of distrust and cynicism towards the motives, overt and covert, of the U.S. government. Iraq certainly did nothing to change that: pre-emptive self-defense is dubiously admissible legally, but it is not a high moral principle. The invasion of Afghanistan was of clear legality, but it too was lacking in a principle beyond “you hit us, so now we are going to hit you even harder.” There is nothing wrong with that argument as a starting point, but it is not going to capture the hearts and minds of anyone.
Today there is an opportunity for the U.S. to shape the conditions and reasons for a multi-national intervention to stop the disaster to the Syrian people. But if President Obama were ambitious, he would use the opportunity to state Why We Fight to all of the Arab nations whose populations have already expressed a yearning for freedom from oppression and autocracy.
- We fight because the Syrian people, through two years of implacable resistance, have demonstrated that they will no longer live under a tyrannical government;
- We fight to bring Bashar al Assad and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice before the International Court of Justice;
- We fight for the sovereignty of the Syrian people, to determine their system of government and to periodically elect their representatives to act in their benefit;
- We fight for the protection of all the ethnic and religious minorities in Syria, no matter how small, and their equal standing before the law;
- We fight for the territorial integrity of the Syrian state and won’t accept ethnic or religious reasons for partition;
- We fight for the equal rights of Syrian women and their unlimited access to education, health care and occupations in the public and private spheres as they see fit;
- We fight for a prosperous, democratic and free Syria, and after the fighting is done and the soldiers gone home, we intend to help in the rebuilding of the material and institutional framework or Syria.
Except for reasons #1 and #2, you could substitute any other Arab state in place of “Syria” and the meaning would remain just as valid. No Arab government (in fact, no government anywhere) that doesn’t agree with those principles lacks legitimacy. Those that fail the test had best be on their guard; dictators are going cheap these days.
Just idealistic words, remarks the cynic, one’s we’ve heard to justify every Western intervention since 1945. I disagree with that: most interventions have been motivated by pure self-interest and declared to be so. Yet the contrast is clear: whenever the U.S. has acted from principle, the world has (grudgingly) applauded: Truman in Korea; Eisenhower during Suez; H.W. Bush in the First Gulf War, Clinton in the former Yugoslavia. If we were excoriated in other occasions, it is because our actions did not live up to our high principles: Eisenhower in Latin America; Kennedy in Cuba; everybody in Vietnam; H.W. Bush in Panama.
The lesson then is “res, non verba”: put your money where your mouth is and demonstrate the truth of those principles. That’s a messy business; it involves a certain extent of nation building, which is a dirty word in the U.S. since Somalia. That seems odd. When we have stuck around and invested in nation-building over the long-haul, things have turned out pretty well: Germany, Japan, South Korea. It is precisely when we have cut and run that things have turned out less well, at least at first: Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. We should therefore be prepared to play a significant non-military role in reconstructing and developing Syria if we wish that outcome to be a success.
That type of success could be exportable to other Arab nations, struggling to bring prosperity back to their nations after their revolutions. Humanitarian aid, reconstruction funds, import credits, trade agreements: all should be forthcoming so that the Syrian people can make their decisions based on hope rather than fear. I have no doubt that so civilized and cosmopolitan a people as the Syrians are will make the right choices for their nation. The “neo-con” dream of Arab democracy could be realized without the use of force and with the support of the Arabs themselves: it would be a much longer-lasting change.
Idealism? Perhaps. But idealism and realpolitik are not incompatible. It is the wise statesman who is able to blend the two in a judicious mixture. So far, President Obama the realist has been in charge. It is time for Barack Obama the idealist to show forth the promise America made to the Arab world when he was elected.
Sources and Notes
 Sanger, David E. and Rudoren, Jodi, “Israel Says It Has Proof That Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons,” The New York Times, 23 April 2013
 “UK says Syrian government use of chemical weapons ‘very likely’,” Reuters, 9 May 2013
 “U.S. intel assesses Syria used chemical weapons, but facts needed -White House,” Reuters, 25 April 2013
 “Syria access essential for credible chemical weapons inquiry -U.N.,” Reuters, 29 April 2013
 Aides insist that the “red line” remark was not scripted. Baker, Peter; Landler, Mark; Sanger, David E.; and Barnard, Anne, “Off-the-Cuff Obama Line Put U.S. in Bind on Syria,” The New York Times, 4 May 2013
 Kumar Sen, Ashish, “2 Senators join McCain’s call for intervention in Syria,” The Washington Times, 6 March 2013
 “U.N. distances self from report Syrian rebels used nerve gas,” Reuters, 6 May 2013
 Sarin is an outlawed toxic nerve agent that is fatal even at very low concentration. Sarin “gas” is actually a highly volatile liquid aerosol that easily vaporizes and can thus act on a victim through the skin as droplets or through being inhaled. It can be delivered by air-dropped munitions, artillery or sprayed directly from aircraft. Depending on the dosage received, death can result in minutes unless antidotes (e.g. atropine) are promptly administered.
 “U.N. has testimony that Syrian rebels used sarin gas: investigator,” Reuters, 6 May 2013
 In contrast to their hero, former President George W Bush, the “Decider.” If only the Decider had made the right decisions.
 Sharp, Jeremy M. and Blanchard, Christopher M., “Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Response,” Congressional Research Service, 22 April 2013
 Pearson, Michael, “U.S.: Intelligence points to small scale use of sarin in Syria,” CNN, 26 April 2013
 General William Tecumseh Sherman to the Mayor and Councilmen of Atlanta, 12 September 1864
 “Most Americans do not want U.S. involved in Syria: Reuters/Ipsos poll,” Reuters, 01 May 2013
 “Seizing Syrian chemical arms could take 75,000 troops,” International Herald Tribune, 17 November 2012
 Tattersall, Nick, “Syria’s neighbors cautious about U.S-led intervention,” Reuters, 28 April 2013
 Ülgen, Sinan, “Turkey’s Syria Conundrum,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 24 August 2013
 When the Spanish military launched its insurrection against the government of the Republic in 1936, the President of Spain requested military assistance from France and Britain to fight against “the fascist uprising” of Franco and his generals. Great Britain, in a vain effort to calm the international waters and not offend Hitler, convinced France to establish a non-intervention pact with the other European powers. Germany and Italy signed the pact and proceeded to send massive quantities of arms, munitions, and troops without which it is doubtful that Franco could have succeeded in his rebellion. The only nation to support the legitimate government of the Republic was the Soviet Union, which had not even been invited to sign the non-intervention declaration. Beevor, Anthony, “The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936 – 1939”, Penguin Books, 1 June 2006
 Mr. Assad and the worst of his cronies should be given every opportunity and warning to seek asylum in whichever country will take their wretched selves; but if it comes to intervention, simple justice demands an accounting of the increased bloodshed and horror that will result.
 Critics of former President H.W. Bush would dispute that the U.S. acted purely from principle, and of course no nation ever acts from purely selfless motives; but the First Gulf War benefited the U.S. from the continuation of a favorable international order, not through any immediate, direct material gain. It was not a plundering expedition.
 Of course the main credit belongs to the leaders and people of those nations; but consider the very different trajectories between East and West Germany, North and South Korea, and you will admit that the leadership of the respective coalition partner (not to say hegemon) also played a decisive role.
 Afghanistan and especially Iraq remain open to speculation. It is doubtful that the current Kabul regime will long survive our departure; but it may. In Iraq, we were there for a long time, but probably not long enough.