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Syrian intervention: still not a good idea

May 30, 2012
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According to Danielle Pletka of AEI, here are five “Obama-style” reasons to intervene in Syria. And by Obama-style, she means: “cynical, self-serving, political reasons why this cynical, self-serving, and most political of presidents should care about what happens in Syria.” If only this President were somewhat more cynical, we cranky bloggers of the realist persuasion cry! In any case, this serves as a useful reminder of why intervening in Syria, the horrors of the Houla massacre aside, is still a very dangerous idea:

1.    The longer fighting goes on, the more likely al Qaeda gains a foothold in Syria, destabilizing Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel. Wise leadership points.

Yes, that’s true, but the only way the Assad regime is going to fall in Syria, short of an Iraq-style invasion, is by prolonging the war and defeating the Assad regime through attrition. In other words, the interventionists’ preferred solution of creating “safe corridors,” arming rebel groups, and conducting airstrikes will only drag out the war without assuring victory. Without a massive ground intervention by an organized force with artillery and the capability to conduct operational-level offensive maneuvers, Assad can retain control even as large sections of his country become no-go areas for regular Syrian troops. If this sounds fantastical that a dictator could hold off losing vast swathes of territory to insurgents while enduring occasional bombing campaigns, look at Saddam Hussein, who stayed in power and violated safe zones (despite punitive strikes in retaliation) for a decade after having his conventional military crushed in the Persian Gulf War.

Pletka’s solution is almost guaranteed to give al Qaeda a larger foothold, because it relies on dragging out the Syrian civil war. If the goal is reducing al Qaeda’s strength, creating a zone of anarchy in the Levant and flooding Syria with arms is about the worst way of doing it. As for regional instability, it’s not like overthrowing a hostile government has ever resulted in regional destabilization, right?

2.    The death of more than 10,000 civilians, including thousands of woman and children, is a stain on the Obama legacy. Moral points.

And what better way to reduce this stain than to drag out the war in Syria? Launching a proxy war in Syria is not going to stop the killing. It’s going to increase the killing, because wars of attrition are how guerrilla forces win against a central government.

Not only that, but the value of “moral points” in the international system isn’t a simple matter of tallying up body counts under a Presidency. Was Obama’s failure to halt the killing in the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war a moral stain on Obama’s legacy? Was there any real political cost to Bush’s legacy of failing to intervene in Sudan?  Morality certainly matters in international politics, but whose morality matters a lot more. In objective political terms, the reputational costs of failing to intervene in Rwanda did not really effect American foreign policy, and nor do interventions often framed as humanitarian interventions necessarily result in useful political gains. The notion that because an American president failed to stop some massacre somewhere is a ludicrous method by which to measure the moral worth of an administration, and if one looks at the opinion of an American citizen, the moral worth of trying to extricate America from bloody wars in the Middle East probably merits higher than risking undoing those gains by trying to save Syrians. Is this callous and unfair? Perhaps, but surely there’s some moral worth in a President catering to beliefs of his constituents, to whom, as an elected official and not an enlightened sovereign, he is beholden.

3.    Subcontracting U.S. foreign policy to Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a recipe for the rise of Wahhabi extremists that will mean a Middle East even more precarious than the one born in the Arab Spring. Muslim moderation points.

Yes, further entwining U.S. foreign policy with Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s interests would be a very dangerous idea. Which is why we shouldn’t do it by serving as their power projection component in Syria while trying to wage a proxy war that will almost certainly require their help. Let’s have no illusions that American intervention would somehow crowd out local influence in the Syrian civil war. If anything, it would make us more beholden to Saudi, Qatari, and other local states’ intelligence services and covert operators. Who do we think is going to smuggle arms into Syria and do the heavy lifting of coordinating rebel combat activities? The limitless covert assets of the CIA, who should probably be busy in Afghanistan or the ongoing U.S. campaigns against al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa and Yemen? There’s no way around working with local assets to support a guerrilla war in the way interventionists describe. That’s what happened during Operation Cyclone. It’s happening now in Yemen and Somalia. It will happen again in Syria.

4.    It’s a chance to hit Iran without hitting Iran, and without allowing a single boot on the ground. Manhood points.

Perhaps I’m mistaken – apparently, there will be no boots on the ground, but we’ll somehow be able to prevent Saudi Arabia and Qatar from coming into the conflict. I suppose the force of our moral injunctions for them to stay out will convince them not to follow their national interests? Who exactly is going to be coordinating the airstrikes Syrian intervention plans describe anyway? Let’s face it – there’s no way the U.S. can intervene in Syria without either “subcontracting” operations to countries Pletka doesn’t want to subcontract to, or without putting boots on the ground – overt or covert – that the IRGC can target. The IRGC is better at this than we are, and they will use this opportunity to wage another war of attrition against the precious few assets the U.S. has prepared for this kind of mission.

If the U.S. wants to wage a war of attrition against Iran, it will force the Iranians to pour as much money as possible into keeping the Assad regime alive. But that requires letting the body count skyrocket and giving up on any of the fantastical hopes that America can somehow moderate the Syrian political climate from the cockpits of fighter aircraft.

5.    It can reinstate the soiled name of “leading from behind.” Recycling points.

The only reason that Libya, a war which was not very popular with the American public, gave the administration a good name was because it worked – which was due in part to luck, and in part to the utter military incompetence and unpreparedness of a Gaddafi regime that was more fearful of a coup than the kind of rebellion which broke out in Libya. In Syria, the prospects of the FSA overtaking the Syrian military are basically nil, even with significant air support, in any kind of reasonable timeframe – Libya still took months, after all. And if Obama were to launch such a catastrophic intervention in Syria, it’s almost certain that rather than praising him for the effort, interventionists will lambaste him for lack of willpower and use “leading from behind” as an insult once again.

Meanwhile, to the extent that American voters care about national security and foreign policy, I highly suspect that Obama will be remembered positively far more for ordering the mission to kill Osama bin Laden than failing to intervene in Syria. If anything, the criticism directed towards him will likely be for failing to end the war in Afghanistan quickly enough.

Unfortunately for interventionists, what’s “cynical, self-serving, and most political” about Obama’s foreign policy is also remarkably in tune with the sentiments of the average American voter, who likes killing terrorists but is sick of war, and who would much rather see the President lead on the economy* than on Syria, and the national interests of a United States that really has no reason to seek “manhood points” or “moral points” in Syrian war.

* Yes, the President is more responsible for foreign policy than the economy. Doesn’t change the fact that the electorate doesn’t see it that way.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2012 3:13 am

    This author puts forth several nonmilitary options for action that I have yet to see any other commentator consider: http://huff.to/JC8O98. In the interest of advancing the debate, I would be eager to know your assessment of his eight points.

    • June 1, 2012 3:31 am

      I’ll give this a longer look later, but it bears noting that two of these options (arming the rebels and having a humanitarian airlift protected by foreign air forces) are hardly “nonmilitary.”

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