Symposium

Bomb Syria: Yes or No?

The risks and ramifications. Contributions from James Piereson, John Tabin, Matt Purple, Seth Lipsky, Jed Babbin, Kaylin Bugos, and Andrew B. Wilson.

By 8.28.13

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James Piereson / A Negative on Syria

The Obama administration is teed up to launch an attack on Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in the civil war in that country. This will likely lead to another ill thought out intervention into a region where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between our friends and enemies.

What does it mean to "punish" the Assad regime? The only way to do that is to intervene in the civil war in an effort to topple the regime. That will open up a hornet's nest of problems. Once engaged the U.S. will be led step by step into deeper involvement into the Syrian civil war. Is it likely that the leaders of a new regime will be any better from an American (or Israeli) point of view? They could be a good deal worse. An attack will ignite a wider war in the region, drawing Iran and Islamist groups into the conflict against the United States. Assad and his friends will retaliate against the U.S. and American interests in ways that are impossible to foresee. Civil wars have a way of turning ugly; unfortunately, outside intervention is likely to make a bad situation even worse.

Why is Syria any more urgent than Iran, which has been working for years to develop nuclear weapons to neutralize American power in the region? We seem to have forgotten about that problem. It wasn't very long ago when someone drew a bright red line on that situation as well. Are chemical weapons in Syria more dangerous than nuclear weapons in Iran? 

From a domestic point of view, a war in the Middle East will drive up oil prices and create the conditions for another recession in the U.S. and Europe. That should come as no surprise: every recession since 1973 has been associated with spikes in oil prices, usually caused by wars in the region. 

This is a situation that calls for intermediate steps to slow down the march toward war: economic sanctions, a UN investigation to determine the facts, pressure on Assad's allies to withhold supplies, and world-wide condemnation. Obama said in 2008 that the intervention in Iraq was "illegal." The main difference between the two situations is that the case for intervention in Iraq was much stronger than that for an attack on Syria today. We would be well advised to resist the temptation to take a baseball bat to the Syrian hornet's nest.

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


John Tabin / A Worthwhile Endeavor?

When considering a U.S. attack on Syrian territory, it's useful to consider the airstrikes that Israel has already embarked on. Living in a dangerous neighborhood and relying on more modest military capabilities than the Pentagon's, the Israelis are forced to zero in on core interests, and in Syria they have two: Preventing the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah, and preventing the seizure of chemical weapons by al Qaeda-affiliated rebels.

Israel's interests here are aligned with U.S. interests (as is usually the case, which is what makes Israel such a valuable ally). But our priorities, and our fears, are slightly different. Hezbollah and al Qaeda affiliates have attacked Israel by rocket, and the nightmare scenario for Israel is a gas attack by rocket or missile that lands deep in Israeli territory. That's why Israeli strikes have focused on delivery platforms -- advanced weaponry that could be fired deep into Israeli territory -- rather than the chemical agents themselves.

Islamists are not likely to gain a foothold for launching rockets from Mexico or Canada, but they might manage to smuggle illicit agents stateside. So the American nightmare scenario around chemical weapons looks different -- more like the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system, where members of the Aum Shinrikyo death cult killed 13 people and seriously wounded dozens more by planting and puncturing packets of sarin. In other words, we should be worried about the chemicals themselves -- and especially worried about them falling into the hands of the most dangerous elements of the rebellion, who would have no compunction about supplying terrorists intent on attacking America. If a barrage of cruise missiles destroys a significant portion of the chemical stockpiles in Syria (it would almost certainly not destroy all of them), it might be a worthwhile endeavor.

There are some who argue that bombing weapons depots isn't enough, and that the goal of intervention must be to topple Assad. After all, if the idea is to uphold humanitarian norms -- which is how the Obama administration advertises it -- what good is it to answer the use of chemical weapons on civilians with a slap on the wrist? Two years and many horrifying war crimes ago, I would have agreed. But since then the rebellion has taken on an increasingly Islamist cast, and at this point the dangers of a victory for either side are almost equally great. As distasteful as it is, at this point it's probably best to stick with the brutal, unstated policy that the Obama administration has (perhaps unintentionally) followed thus far: Support the rebels just enough to keep the war burning, not enough to end it.

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.


Matt Purple/ Obama’s Camel-in-the-Butt Strategy

When your plan for war is challenged by its own military architect, chances are it has a few flaws. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened with President Obama’s impending missile attacks against Syria’s chemical weapon sites.

Chris Harmer, a former Navy planner, drew up a theoretical plan for surgical strikes against Syrian military bases, which was later touted by John McCain and other hawks on Capitol Hill as a serious way to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons on the cheap. Now Harmer is expressing skepticism: “I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don't do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives,” he told the Cable.

The low cost option, limited airstrikes, tactical strikes… call it what you will, but I’m most partial to George W. Bush’s description of Bill Clinton’s flaccid attack on the Sudan in 1998: “I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 tent and hit a camel in the butt.” It’s Clinton’s shameless impeachment-day bombings that Obama’s plan most brings to mind. Syria is 71,500 square miles in size, with a population 21 million strong and highly variegated — Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze. Our plan for this complex and sprawling civil war, as we understand it so far, is to spend two days tossing around cruise missiles.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, already laughed John Kerry out of the room after Kerry suggested the U.S. should just bomb Syrian chemical weapons targets. Yet now that’s what we seem poised to do. Why? Because the president is currently wedged between his desire for inaction and the foolish ultimatum he issued to Bashar al-Assad over WMDs. So he’s opting for the easiest way out. As Jay Carney said yesterday, the goal of the operation isn’t regime change. As defense officials told NBC News, the attack is meant only to “send a message.”

But will it really stop there? Such an offensive may seem like it’s low-risk, but it positions America to be sucked deeper into a civil war that we can’t effectively manage and have no business fighting. Reasons for this abound, but to demonstrate just how far removed our mission in Syria is from any sort of war on terror, consider that if we intervene, the American military will be fighting on the same side as al Qaeda and its homicidal leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

A brutal dictator who’s gassed his own people versus a rebel movement blossoming with Islamist killers. The only acceptable choice is for America to stay out.

Matt Purple is assistant managing editor of The American Spectator.


Seth Lipsky / A Legacy of Retreat

Reuters moved a story the other day quoting the Syrian tyrant, President al-Assad, as warning against an American military intervention in Syria. “Failure awaits the United States as in all previous wars it has unleashed, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day,” the wire service quoted him as telling Izvestia in an interview the pro-Kremlin newspaper said was conducted in Damascus. Al-Assad’s father issued the same kind of malarkey years ago.

Of course, so did Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel. It strikes me that they are the biggest problem President Obama faces should he seek to rouse the country to a campaign in Syria. The president made a point of placing at the head of his second term foreign policy team two figures known for nothing so much as having fallen away in the winter of our war against communism in Indochina. They sounded the trumpet of retreat when it was fashionable to do so. How is the country supposed to respond when they sound now the trumpet of war?

It’s not that I lack for enthusiasm for an attack on Syria. I’ve spent an entire newspaper career urging the American leadership to address the problem of Syria’s chemical arsenal, and I’m in no mood to change my view that the sooner Damascus is disarmed, the better. But I’m just of a generation that is not going to be inspired by a call from the current leadership. It lacks the strategic vision of President Reagan and the grit of President George W. Bush -- and the war record of the members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Seth Lipsky is the founding editor of the New York Sun.


Jed Babbin / The Sheikhole’s Threat

Hossein Sheikholeslam, the director general of the Iranian parliament’s International Affairs bureau is the equivalent of the chairman of the Senate Foreign relations committee. If we believe the sheikhole, Iran will attack Israel if we attack the Syrian Assad regime. He claims that Israel will be the first victim of any such attack.

President Obama seemed content to deal with the Syrian question as an academic exercise, but Iran’s butting in ends that luxury. He thinks he can make decisions in concert with our NATO allies -- Britain and France -- in isolation from the rest of the world. As he continues to mull the possibility of launching a few Tomahawk cruise missiles at some random target in Syria to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, he might suddenly awaken to the fact that he’s not sitting in a faculty lounge.

Iran and Hizballah (the terrorist subsidiary of Iran co-owned by Syria) cannot be ignored because their threat is credible. Iran, and Hizballah, have thousands of missiles they can hit Israel with. As good as Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system is, I’m betting there are a lot more missiles in bad guys’ hands than war shots for the I.D.

Obama’s diplomatic wound is self-inflicted and entirely caused by his habit of long soliloquy debates. Remember, this is the guy who took six months to decide on a surge for Afghanistan. If he had gone ahead even with the attack he’s apparently planning -- which is not intended to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict -- he could have done so without having interference from nations such as Iran.

But now, Iran -- or at least one of its putative leaders -- has spoken. By threatening Israel, the sheikhole has put Obama on a meat hook and raised him before the international community as if he were a side of beef. If Obama attacks, and Israel suffers, Obama will be blamed. If Obama doesn’t attack Iran will have the right to claim that he backed down in face of a threat from a minor parliamentarian. Either way, Obama loses. The only way he can come out of this smelling like a rose is if we attack Syria and Iran and Hezbollah do nothing.

This is about outcome-based warfare. If we can’t figure out an outcome we want that we could create by military force, there’s no point in any attack. If we wanted to admit that we have an interest in knocking Assad out -- which would mean we would openly defy Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and the rest (which sounds pretty good) we could pull it off.

Which is the wrong thing to do in any event. The only major national security interest we have in Syria is to topple Assad. The Assad family -- père et fils -- have been labeled terrorists since 1979. Anyone who believes that the Russians and Iranians would allow an Assad replacement to have any other devotion than to terrorism cannot know any of the facts on the ground or the history of the region.

If we were to mount a major attack against Assad -- one designed to cause his downfall -- it would require a substantial deployment of U.S. aircraft and troops and would begin with a days-long attack that would obliterate Assad’s air forces. This we could do. But why do that when the next Syrian regime will be as terrorist-driven as the first?

Threats and counter-threats are cheap. Lives, aircraft, missiles, and bullets are very expensive.

TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.


Kaylin Bugos / Let's Stop Pretending

U.S. intervention in Syria is a perfect policy for those who see the world in black and white -- and that's the exact reason why it is such a terrible idea.

Supporters see it as a struggle between good and evil – good: the rebels, bad: Assad. Yet that characterization is inaccurate. The rebels are a mixed bag, with plenty of Islamist terrorists – including al Qaeda – working with the Free Syrian Army, the supposed democrats. Assad is a mass murderer, but he also protected Syria's Christian minority from the persecution it faces in surrounding countries. Assad is no angel, but the rebels aren't necessarily a force for good either.

Israel, arguably the country with the biggest stake in the outcome of the conflict, has been careful to avoid siding with either Assad or the rebels. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that many of the rebels harbor just as much hatred for Israel as Assad and would love nothing more than to see it destroyed.

Those who want the U.S. to get involved don't see the complexities of the situation. These are the people who love lines in the sand. Shooting people is fine, but chemical weapons are not. Both methods may end in mass casualties, but Obama decided use of chemical weapons was his red line.

Even then, his divide wasn't absolute. It doesn't matter that Israel acknowledged that Assad used chemical weapons in April and even the Obama administration admitted it in June. What matters is that there are widely published pictures and emotional outcry now. Obama doesn't care that chemical weapons were used. He only cares that he can justify involvement now that people are paying attention.

Many look at the conflict only from a humanitarian perspective. Over 100,000 people have died since the war began over two years ago and killing is bad, so we must intervene to stop the killing, right? Wrong. Strategically, U.S. involvement is terrible policy. Images of young children killed by chemical warfare last week may raise emotions, but they do little to explain the strategic implications of action.

Israel has largely stayed out of the war, and for good reason. American involvement would be just as bad, if not worse. If the U.S. strikes Syria, both Assad's army and Iran have made it very clear that they will respond with attacks of their own. The Jerusalem Post:

Israel has been mentioned as a target for retribution, though US allies Jordan and Turkey could just as easily find themselves on the target list.

Efforts to lash out at Israel could include Syrian ballistic missile attacks, rocket attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon or in Syria, or terrorist attacks on overseas Israeli targets by global Hezbollah or Iranian operatives.

If attacked, Netanyahu has promised to respond with full force. A conflict with Syria and Iran on one side and Israel on the other would quickly light the entire Middle East on fire.

The likelihood of Assad attacking Israel at a time when he needs all of his resources to fight his own people seems low, but the possibility is there. Striking Syria may just add enough fuel to the fire to start a massive war in the Middle East. Can't we do the whole world a favor and just stay out of it for once?

Kaylin Bugos was a 2013 summer intern at The American Spectator.


Andrew B. Wilson / A Shameful Mess

To intervene or not to intervene -- that is the question.

Where Barack Obama is concerned, the answer is “Yes a thousand times over,” if you are talking about the desire to muck about or meddle in domestic economic affairs. Contrariwise, it is a shocked and horrified “No,” if you are talking about anything to protect American interests and lives, or to assert America power outside our own borders.

We saw how little he wanted to meddle in Middle Eastern affairs last September 11 -- on the eleventh anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attack that killed almost 3,000 Americans. Alerted to the fact that the American consulate was under fire late in the afternoon, Washington, D.C. time, the leader of the United States and the free world did exactly nothing in the way of trying to mobilize a rescue mission. He didn’t even bother to stay in communication with military commanders through the seven- or eight-hour siege, which ended in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

To this day, neither Obama nor then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have accounted for their actions on the night of September 11/12, 2012. It is -- as the president never tires of saying -- “a phony scandal.”

Then -- beginning the very next day and carried over the next three weeks -- came the cover-up falsely suggesting that what happened in Benghazi was the result of a made-in-the-U.S. video that was terribly, terribly insulting to many Muslims. To think that we as a nation had been partly responsible for hurting the feelings of some otherwise very nice and sweet people who got carried away in a spontaneous demonstration and just happened to slaughter a few of our people!

But that has been the Obama modus operandi in dealing with the Middle East from the very beginning. It has been to pretend that there is no real threat to the U.S. or to peace and stability of Western democracies stemming from the continuing rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The policy is to retreat and appease… retreat and appease -- on the one hand, forswearing the use of force (leaving no residual force in Iraq and beating what will be a hasty retreat from Afghanistan) and, on the other, pretending that all can be peace and happiness with a group like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

All around, it has been a shamefully inept and, indeed, a deceitful and cowardly performance by the Obama administration.

Obama has invited others to think less highly of the U.S. -- and many of our enemies -- both old (cf. Russia, North Korea, and China) and new (those who want to make Islam a vehicle from traveling in time back to the dark ages) have been happy to do so.

I believe that the Obama administration will be incapable of taking decisive action -- either in destroying stockpiles of chemical weapons or in removing the Assad regime.

Ideally, it would be wonderful if this administration saw the current situation as an opportunity to achieve a much larger and more important objective -- in teaming up with the Israelis in mounting a surprise attack aimed at destroying Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.

But even if the U.S. military felt up to the task of striking a blow, would the Obama administration have the nerve to do it? To put that another way, how do you stiffen the spine of a creature that has no spine?

Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator, writes from St. Louis.

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