Confessions of a reluctant hawk: Syria 2013 edition

August 31, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 31, 2013

President Barack Obama has declared his intent to launch military action against Syria; depending on if and when Congress gives its blessing, hostilities could commence within weeks — perhaps even days. I wanted to take some time to analyze the situation.

In July, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said that there had been at least 100,000 deaths in the Syrian civil war. The two-and-a-half-year-old conflict is said to have prompted 2 million Syrians (half of them children) to seek refuge in neighboring countries — this from a nation that had an estimated 22.5 million residents as of mid-2013. Rebels claimed last week that government forces deployed chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, killing hundreds of people. The attack, which the United States officially believes to have been the work of the Syrian government, is said to have killed more than 1,400.

Syria has been ruled by the Assad family for 42 years; Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad as president in 2000. President Obama has called upon Assad to resign from office. Assad’s supporters include Russia and China; Iran, which is hostile to the U.S., is also among them. So is Hezbollah, a militant Shiite organization that Western many governments consider a terrorist group.

Unfortunately, the rebel coalition is not entirely filled with angels. There are reports that rebels massacred more than 100 villagers because they were Alawites, the same ethnicity as the Assads. At least one rebel faction has been linked to al Qaeda. Syrian leaders claim that the rebels themselves have used chemical weapons on at least one occasion — although evidently on not as large a scale as government forces are believed to have done.

With that in mind, let’s consider a few relevant questions:

• Does the United States have reason to intervene in the Syrian conflict?

Yes, but it’s virtually impossible to argue that our national security reasons are directly at stake. Instead, the best case is predicated on humanitarian and international law interests.

Chemical weapons were first used in World War I, where they were said to have killed 100,000. Public outrage over these agents, which variously kill by suffocating or burning their victims, eventually led to multiple bans on their manufacture, acquisition, possession, transfer and use. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits these weapons, is now law of the land throughout most of the world; notably, Syria is not among the signatories.

President Obama, along with a number of other observers, fear that if the utilization of chemical weapons goes unpunished — especially if Syria’s government did indeed gas hundreds of civilians — it will only encourage more future uses of chemical agents.

So a (hoped-for) deterrent comprises the international law motive for getting involved in Syria. The humanitarian motive is to prevent or reduce the loss of civilian lives.

• Is there an effective strategy for achieving the purpose of military intervention in Syria?

That’s the $100 billion question. Alas, there’s no clear answer to it. Actually, it might be fairer to say that there simply isn’t any effective strategy for deterring future chemical weapons use or for reducing civilian deaths.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly been a voice of caution regarding a possible attack against Syria. “We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action,” he told Congress, according to Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic. “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

Dempsey is far from being alone in cautioning that a military intervention could make things worse. On Thursday, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross spoke out against an intervention.

“Further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense,” said Magne Barth, head of the committee’s delegation in Syria, according to Reuters reporters Dominic Evans and Khaled Yacoub Oweis.

In fact, one study found, in the words of Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, that “intervening on behalf of rebels increases the number of civilians who are killed by increasing the desperation of government forces.”

Obama has emphasized repeatedly that he isn’t interested in using military force to depose Assad; nor is he interested in deploying ground troops to Syria. Yet it’s hard to imagine an American strike that would weaken the Syrian leader without somehow empowering opposing factions.

Also of significance: Dempsey has warned that any intervention runs the risk of involving American forces in expanded action. “Deeper involvement is hard to avoid,” he told Congress. It’s possible to contemplate a scenario in which the U.S. firing cruise missiles represents the camel’s nose entering the tent — once part of the beast enters the realm, the rest is bound to follow.

• Given all the risks and unknowns involved in attacking Syria, is it worth doing so?

Reasonable minds may disagree. My conclusion is that a limited strike of some kind is likely worth undertaking.

Granted, the benefits of such an attack may be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Any use of force runs the risk of killing innocent people — a number which is relatively easy to count. Just how many lives an attack might save, or how much an attack might deter the future use of chemical weapons, is virtually impossible to calculate.

But just as action entails risks and costs, so does inaction. Bearing in mind that this is highly speculative, let’s imagine that the failure of the U.S. and other nations to react to Assad’s apparent chemical strike in Damascus emboldens other actors to consider acquiring and using these weapons. Assad is allied with both Iran and Hezbollah, as mentioned above. What’s stopping Assad from transferring sarin or similar agents to the? More importantly, what would then stop Iran and Hezbollah from using chemicals to assault Israel (or their own internal dissidents)?

That’s the worst-case scenario for inaction. There is, however, an even worse outcome that could result from action — if the U.S. attacks Assad loyalists but both fails to deter the transfer and use of weapons of mass destruction (whether in Syria or elsewhere) and fails to prevent future civilian massacres in Syria.

I’ll be frank, however: The specter of chemical attacks enabled by a failure to respond to the Damascus gassing haunts me more than the possibility of a failed intervention.

Yes, an attack on Assad’s government that fulfills all of its very specific goals will be difficult to plan and execute. But I’d rather err on the side of attempting to prevent future chemical attacks than on the side of inaction. I conclude — somewhat reluctantly — that doing nothing at all would likely be far worse.

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