Several people (including my wife!) have recently asked my opinion on Syria. My answer is almost as complicated as the actual situation. Well, not really, but it offers a nice entry to the subject. So I’m going to try to articulate my thoughts. Briefly.
But before I do, I want to offer one note and one caveat. The caveat is that I approach the issue of how to respond to the ongoing civil war in Syria (as well as unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world) not only from an American viewpoint, but also from the point of view of someone who is a strong supporter of Israel. Thus, I take into account first what is in the best interests of America, but I also consider whether an action will be good for Israel. Second, I’ve been to the Golan Heights and looked across the border at Syrian guard posts and gun emplacements. No, that’s not really relevant to the issue, but when I think about the subject I can’t help but recall the time that I spent (brief as it was) in the Golan and then with a Druze family in northern Israel.
So, should we bomb Syria? In a word, yes.
But of course it’s not that simple.
I think that we should take efforts to seriously degrade if not eliminate Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against its own people or its neighbors. Chemical weapons are so horrendous, so beyond the norms of modern warfare, that their use cannot be condoned and must, instead, be severely punished. Possession of chemical weapons may not be overly problematic in and of itself, if only for an apparent deterrent effect. However, once a country uses chemical weapons, especially against civilians, then it becomes incumbent upon the international community to do something. Why?
At some point, atrocities become so bad that we, as humans, have a moral obligation to try to stop the atrocities and punish those responsible. Though we’ve spent the 60+ years since World War II saying “never again” with regard to genocide, we’ve allowed genocide to happen over and over and over. The use of chemical weapons against a civilian population isn’t genocide … but it’s not far down on the atrocity scale.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that we have an obligation to protect every civilian everywhere from every despot or act of cruelty. Far from it. And I don’t think that it is necessarily our obligation to invade a country to protect its civilian population from the acts of a tyrant. Nor should we be invading every country that has weapons of mass destruction. I’m not advocating war, though in the case of genocide I might make the case that war becomes just and appropriate.
But where, as in Syria, there is at least the possibility of preventing further atrocities and, at the same time, punishing those who carried out the atrocities, all without substantial risk of loss of life to those carrying out the mission, then I think an attack is justified. However, if we do attack Syria, we should do so with strength and seriousness of purpose, not just launch a few cruise missiles or airstrikes “for show”. If we choose to hit Syria, we should hit Syria hard.
A mere “show of force” sort of strike could, I fear, have the opposite effect of that intended. If Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons is not eliminated or at least severely degraded, then I fear that the Assad regime will choose to use what it left of its chemical stockpiles. Why not? What would they have to lose (especially if Assad can give the order to use chemical weapons from the safety of somewhere else, like say, Iran, where he is reported to be as of today)? I also worry that the use of chemical weapons wouldn’t be limited to Syria’s civilian population or even the rebel armies. No. I fear that Syria might launch chemical weapon attacks against Israel or even Turkey or the Sunni and Christian populations in Lebanon. Or, perhaps, Syria would try to transfer those chemical weapons to Hezbollah for use in Lebanon, against Israel, or for export abroad for use in terrorist attacks. Those are risks that we cannot take.
I don’t think that we should necessarily be aiming to kill Syrian President Assad; but we should make sure that our strikes are strong enough so that he isn’t in a position to lash out like a spoiled child, taking more of his population and the populations of his neighbors (or the world) down with him.
I don’t think that we should be arming the rebels, at least not with any real heavy weaponry. Rifles and bullets? Fine. But we should not be giving them anti-tank rockets, anti-aircraft missiles, or the like. Why? First, as much as we may dislike Assad and his actions, I’m not sure that we’re necessarily that much more comfortable with the rebel groups, especially as it appears that some may be linked with al-Qaeda. We armed the Afghan muhajadeen against the USSR … and then those weapons were turned both on civilians and, eventually, Americans, as the Taliban took power. We need to be very careful that we’re not arming people who will first use them against Assad and then use them against America, Israel, and western democracies. We need to learn from past mistakes; giving people guns with which to fight a common enemy doesn’t necessarily make those people your friends.
Finally, I think that we need to strike Syria because we told them (and the world) that we would if they crossed a certain red line (the red line, in this case, being the use of chemical weapons). We need to “honor” our promise so that we are taken seriously when making ultimatums of this sort. We need our allies to know that when we say we’ll do something, we’ll honor our promise. More importantly, we need those to whom an ultimatum may be directed to know that we’ll do what we said. And in this, I’m looking directly at Iran. If we allow Syria to cross the red line of chemical weapons use without serious repercussions, then Iran will have no reason to think that we’re doing anything but bluffing if we threaten action over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran must understand that, must be made to understand that.
So, yes. I think that we should strike Syria. I think we should hit them hard. We should degrade Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons against its own civilian population or against others. But we should not use those strikes as an chance to tip the scales of the civil war itself.
Oh, and to those who want to compare surgical strikes against Syria to the invasion of Iraq? Please just shut up and go away. The use of surgical strikes to eliminate known and used weapons of mass destruction bears no similarity whatsoever to invading a country on the basis of lies about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.