what is to be done about syria?

So it looks like Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against rebel forces in Syria. President Obama, having previously referred to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict as “a game changer,” or a “red line,” or some equally faux-macho vapidity, is understandably interested in letting all the facts come in before America ratchets up its involvement. The problem is, assuming we decide that we do need to get involved, what does that look like? High-ranking military officials are wondering if military involvement will accomplish anything. I make fun of the cries to Do Something by clowns who don’t really know what it is we should do or what the outcomes of Doing Something might be, but “What is is we should Do?” is a serious question. Given my many months of experience as Some Guy with a Blog, I thought I’d take a look at the problem we face in Syria and the considerations for which any intervention plan must account.

It seems to me that America has 4 reasons to be concerned about what’s happening in Syria; in no particular order, they are:

  1. Assad’s body count is massive, as many as 80,000 so far depending on the estimate.
  2. Syria has stockpiles of chemical weapons
  3. There is a strong risk of regional destabilization
  4. Assad is a problem for us and our regional allies in general

Hopefully Iraq established that number 4 is not a sufficient justification to go do war on somebody, absent a real causus belli and strong international support. We know from past experience that number 1 is not enough to get America involved in a conflict, though it’s helpful in building public support when we decide to engage in a war for other reasons. That leaves numbers 2 and 3 as legitimate potential justifications for American involvement; the problem is that, given American interests in the region, it’s not clear that we should be backing the rebels. Morally there’s no justification for supporting Assad and every reason to support the rebels, but strategically? Let’s examine after the jump.

Chemical weapons are a funny thing. They were a powerful battlefield tool in WWI, when static concentrations of soldiers were an easy target and before air power and artillery technology had advanced to the point where either could do massive damage to ground forces. Nowadays, you can kill as many people with a bombing run and arouse far less international indignation for your trouble. Chemical weapons may make more sense from the standpoint of a regime trying to exterminate unruly civilians, but again there are conventional means to achieve the same end (80,000 and counting) without tripping any global “red lines” or whatever. These are not effective battlefield weapons, and it’s questionable why they’re considered WMD at all from that perspective. No, the great worry about chemical weapons is that they will fall into the hands of terrorists. A terrorist group can’t spend time thoroughly bombing an urban center and doesn’t have the air force or artillery pieces that would be required. In terms of maximizing civilian casualties while minimizing time, effort, and money, a chemical weapon attack on a populated area makes sense for a terrorist group, particularly the kind of nihilist terror group that doesn’t worry about international disapproval (e.g., al-Qaeda). Does Assad have ties to terror groups? Undeniably; Syria and Hezbollah have had close ties virtually since Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s, and Hezbollah is absolutely a terrorist group. However, Syria has had an active chemical weapons program for years now, and Hezbollah has yet to employ chemical weapons in a terror attack, strongly suggesting that Syria has not funneled these weapons to terrorists. That policy could change completely if Assad really feels that his days are numbered. Meanwhile, there are elements of the Syrian opposition that have openly declared their allegiance to al-Qaeda, so if the rebels defeat the regime and if they take over its chemical weapons sites, and don’t secure those sites properly, there’s a troubling potential chemical weapons pipeline from the Syrian opposition to al-Qaeda.

The potential for Syria’s conflict to spill over the borders and affect neighboring states is high. Obviously any conflict in Syria almost necessarily destabilizes Lebanon; when I visited Lebanon in the 2000s there were uniformed Syrian military still hanging around on the streets, and in the mountains I met a Syrian guy who drove back and forth across the border every day to sell nuts. If the border with Lebanon isn’t secure for a nut seller, then it’s not secure for chemical weapons smugglers or general political strife. Turkey is at risk also; there have already been cross-border exchanges of fire and concerns that Turkey would invoke the NATO treaty to force western involvement in Syria. But what we should really be worried about is Iraq. The Sunni groups that are rebelling in Syria are closely related to Sunni groups in Iraq who did rebel for a time after our Glorious Adventure there, and who seem to once again be fairly unhappy with their circumstances. America is already having trouble keeping the Shi’ite Iraqi government in line with respect to (not) aiding Assad, because the Iraqi government fears a regional Sunni uprising a hell of a lot more than they fear us. So, back the Syrian rebels, risk emboldening Iraqi Sunnis and reigniting civil war there?

Of course we’re not going to intervene in Syria to save Assad, nor should we. He lost any claim to moral equivalence around 80,000 bodies ago. But to the extent that we should intervene at all, there must be conditions. Here’s what I think:

  • We need to be absolutely sure what happened. Right now there’s only preliminary evidence that Assad used chemical weapons, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense that he did. Whatever happened only caused a relative handful of casualties, and it seems like Assad would have to be going out of his way to alienate the rest of the planet for no apparent strategic benefit. We have to get a better handle on what happened before we act.
  • There needs to be significant international support. One of the many things that separated Libya from Iraq was that Libya was conducted under the auspices of NATO, not America and her groupies. This is going to be a tough nut to crack, since Assad still has support with Russia and China and either can scuttle any plan in the UN Security Council. But if we can confirm that he gassed his own people, that’s a lever that can be used to pry open some daylight between Assad and his protectors.
  • There needs to be an organized resistance movement with a credible replacement for the Assad regime. Another key factor that separated Libya from Iraq is that there was an open, active resistance movement in armed revolt against Gaddafi, one that asked directly for western aid. Any pre-war Iraqi opposition movement was only to be found in the buffet lines of five-star hotels across Europe. In Syria’s case there is a rebellion, they do seem to have some organization, and they are asking for help. Still, it would be nice to have a better idea of who’s going to be running Syria after Assad than we had with respect to who would be running Libya after Gaddafi.
  • Chemical weapons security is the first consideration. If the Syrian opposition can’t guarantee us that Jabhat al-Nusrah isn’t going to walk off with a few hundred kilos of sarin at its earliest opportunity, then they’re not ready for prime time and we will have to rethink things. Apparently there are reports that we’re mulling strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons facilities, I guess on the belief that it’s better to gas more Syrians than Assad did rather than risk terrorists getting hold of them, but this would be a huge mistake. For one thing we’re unlikely to get everything, and for another, if our attacks cause chemical weapons to be dispersed amidst the Syrian populace, we’ll once again have made ourselves the Bad Guy in a Middle Eastern conflict.
  • We cannot act in a way that will supply potential terrorists with advanced munitions, and must minimize the potential for blowback. No direct weapons sales, please. No combat troops in country, please. No drones, please. We could start by eliminating Assad’s air capability and see if that’s enough, but this is a very challenging task (see the Buzzfeed piece I linked to above), because Syria’s air defenses are serious business, so we should not go down this road lightly. If it’s not enough, then try some targeted command and control strikes, maybe? Again, Libya was a pretty good model here, though Libya was easy compared to Syria.
  • Diplomatic efforts geared toward Iraqi Sunnis must be ramped up. Somebody has to start working on repairing the relationship between Baghdad and Iraq’s Sunnis, lest what’s happening in Syria become a region-wide Sunni-Shi’ite conflict. That is something we definitely don’t want.

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