Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of intervening in the Syrian conflict. As I said before, I’m not all that keen on helping the Syrian opposition win, since it’s not obvious that they’re better than the Assad government. Frankly, if either side wins outright, the likely outcome is the mass slaughter and exodus of the losers, meaning that the “best” result is that both sides slug it out for a few more years before negotiating a peace agreement that slices up Syria like a Christmas goose along religious and ethnic lines (i.e., the Yugoslavia solution). That’s not a good result, since in the meantime tens of thousands (or more) Syrians (mostly civilians) will die, but in this fight there are no “good” outcomes, just better or worse outcomes.
But when it comes to punishing the Assad government for its use of chemical weapons, that’s a whole different story, which makes the fact that the Obama administration is waiting until, at least, next week, to unleash the hounds all the more baffling.
First, let’s dispense with the nonsense, advanced by the usual suspects on the left (and Syria’s backers in Russia and Iran), that this is all a pretext for an American invasion of Syria or some sort of Mossad plot. Only a complete moron would look at the facts that (i) the Syrian government has possession of chemical weapons, and (ii) chemical weapons were used against opposition held positions around Damascus and come to any other conclusion than that those weapons were likely used by the Syrian government (that the Americans, and others, apparently have compelling evidence that it was in fact the Syrian government only adds to the mix). Then again, the hard-core anti-American left has no shortage of complete morons.
Having dispensed with that (idiot) position, the United States (and by extension the rest of the civilized world) has a compelling interest in making sure that Syria (and anyone else who might be so inclined) doesn’t feel that they can get into the habit of using chemical weapons with impunity. Ever since WWI there has been an internationally accepted norm against the use of chemical weapons in warfare. Sure, there have been exceptions to that norm, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Mussolini’s Italy or Imperial Japan. Then again, that those “exceptions” consist entirely of criminal regimes only reinforces the argument that there is a norm against the use of chemical weapons (and the fact that other barbarian states, such as Stalinist Russia or Hitler’s Germany didn’t use chemical weapons in the face of possible, or in the case of Germany certain, defeat is testament to the power of that norm). The fact that murderers kill people doesn’t prove that there isn’t a universal norm against murdering people – murderers gonna murder. Given the norm, the argument that Syria (along with North Korea – another outlaw state) didn’t sign the Chemical Weapons Convention is neither here nor there.
But international norms against the use of chemical weapons can only be preserved if people who violate them face sanctions. The leaders of fascist Italy and Imperial Japan were hung for their troubles. Due to the general uselessness of the international community, Saddam Hussein had a longer run, though he too ultimately swung for his many crimes. Let Assad use chemical weapons to hold onto power, and all of a sudden, the world’s dirtbag community starts wondering why they too can’t use chemical weapons. Since the UN is generally useless, and in any event UN action is being blocked by Vladimir Putin’s troglodytic regime, that leaves the US (and its allies) as the last bastions of justice in the world.
More to the point, there are practical humanitarian reasons for intervention as well. Sure, so long as the fighting in Syria continues lots of civilians are going to die (just last week the Syrian air force napalmed a playground ). But you can kill civilians a lot faster with chemical weapons than with good old-fashion bullets and artillery shells. Deterring the future use of chemical weapons won’t end the fighting or end civilian casualties, but it will make it harder for the Syrian regime to kill large numbers of civilians in one shot (so to speak) which may keep civilian casualties down. Hey, as I said, there are no “good” solutions in Syria, just less bad ones.
Moreover, if the best available outcome in Syria is a negotiated peace, preventing the Assad government from using chemical weapons to gain a military edge over its opponents helps achieve that goal. The point here is that the limited intervention contemplated by the Obama administration isn’t going to end the fighting, but it might keep Assad from using chemical weapons to try to win the war on his terms. Why would the Assad regime feel the need to negotiate if it thinks it has a free hand to gas its way to victory?
And it’s not like there’s a lot of downside to this for the US. Sure, the Iranians and the Russians (to say nothing of the Syrians) are going to squawk about it. But anyone see the Russians or Iranians lifting a finger to do anything about it? As for the Syrians, well, the Assad regime kind of has its hands full now, think they’re keen for the US Navy or Air Force to start making regular visits? The more likely scenario is that they’ll bitch and whine, then pull a few dead civilians out of the morgue and present them as victims of “American-Zionist aggression”, while quietly putting the chemical weapons genie back in the bottle. And there’s a broader upside for the US – kicking Assad in the nuts might serve as a useful reminder to America’s other enemies (ahem, Iran) that they might want to tread lightly. They could be next.
The US isn’t talking about putting boots on the ground, so US casualties will be minimal/non-existent – any attack will likely consist of cruise missiles and drones. Furthermore, there’s reason to believe that such a US attack could inflict significant pain for the Syrian regime – and level the playing field between the regime and the rebels – without significant civilian casualties. For example, the Chosky’s make a compelling case that by targeting Syrian airfields, the US could (i) destroy the Assad government’s ability to use airpower against the rebels (did I mention they napalmed a playground last week?), (ii) deny them the ability to use aircraft to transport reinforcements and supplies between government outposts in Syrian, and (iii) cut off air-borne supplies from Russia and Iran. In short, the US can inflict a great deal of pain on the Assad regime at no or little cost beyond firing off a few of last year’s cruise missiles.
All of which leaves me wondering, what the fuck is Obama waiting for? Look, I’m not an Obama-hater. On foreign policy, his administration has been no better or worse than the Bush administration (not surprisingly, since on many key issues, his foreign policy has been no different from that of the Bush administration) or most other recent US presidents. People can argue that he made a mistake by drawing a “red line” on chemical weapons this time last year, setting himself up for having to attack Syria when the Assad regime called his bluff (or so it believes), but really, any US president who didn’t draw that particular line in the sand isn’t worthy of the title. But having drawn a red line, damnit, Obama damn well better follow-up on it.
The Assad government is a piece of shit, it did use chemical weapons against its own civilians (frankly, Assad was a piece of shit even before he used chemical weapons), the minute that Obama thought he had the evidence to back it up, he should have had the US Navy and Air Force kick Assad in the teeth.
It’s not too late, of course. By this time next week, Obama will have obtained the approval of Congress to kick Assad in the teeth (although, God help him if he doesn’t – his credibility will be toast, and US foreign policy is effectively dead for the next three years) and no doubt the US military will be raining death on various Assad underlings. All good. But there was no reason to wait two weeks to do it. Surely to God he must have told the US Navy and Air Force to start preparing contingency plans when he first drew his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons (if not then, then by the time reports that the Assad’s were testing that threat with the use of small scale chemical weapon use last winter). In the meantime, the Syrians will have done their best to mitigate the impact of any American strike while crowing to the world about US weakness. If Obama wanted to tell Syria (and its allies) not to fuck with him, that message would have been a lot louder had it been delivered last week.