Four Bad Arguments Pushing the U.S. into Syria's War

Four Bad Arguments Pushing the U.S. into Syria's War
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Slowly but steadily, the United States (scratch that, Washington, DC) is talking itself into a deeper involvement in Syria's civil war. There are already reports indicating that the U.S. is taking an active hand in determining which Syrian rebel groups will receive shipments of weapons purchased by Gulf allies. The CIA has reportedly been training "secular" fighters in Jordan to send into the fray.

All the while, the Obama administration has been goaded ever-deeper by a series of dubious arguments about U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. Four, in particular, have surfaced frequently.

1. It's in America's national security interest

The argument goes something like this: "This regime in Syria serves as the main forward operating base of the Iranian regime in the heart of the Arab world. It has supported Palestinian terrorist groups and funneled arms of all kinds, including tens of thousands of rockets, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It remains a committed enemy of Israel." That was Senator John McCain, writing in the The New Republic.

Topple Assad, the theory goes, and Iran loses an ally, Israel an enemy and Hezbollah a critical patron. So far, so reasonable, even if the connection to U.S. security is tenuous.

But all of the benefits that supposedly accrue from toppling Assad only occur if Syria is able to reconstitute itself into a stable, secure government that rejects Iranian goals and prevents al-Qaeda cells from spawning in its midst. What are the odds of that?

At the moment, they appear bleak. No international peacekeeping force, not even a regional one, is poised to enter Syria to police it when and if the Assad regime crumbles. As the U.S. learned in Iraq, it takes well over 100,000 troops and the cooperation of vital sections of the population to adequately pacify a country cleaved by civil war -- and even then, violence and disorder remain potent forces.

It's always possible that the various militia groups waging war against Assad will decide to lay down their arms and cooperate to form a government that can successfully police all of Syria, but that appears to be a long shot. What appears more likely to happen is that U.S. arms and interference will accelerate Syria's collapse into a failed state. In such an environment, there will not only be ample opportunities for Iran to preserve, if not extend, its influence, but there will be newfound threats to U.S. security including the establishment of additional safe havens for al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist groups. That's a net-negative for U.S. strategic interests.

2. America has a moral obligation to stop the bloodshed

Aside from the supposed strategic imperative, the administration is being scolded for its supposed indifference to the human toll Syria's war has taken on the country's civilian population. No one can argue that Syria's bloodshed has been appalling and U.S. efforts to fund medical care and housing for refugees is certainly appropriate. But the argument that arming rebel groups will result in a net-gain for the Syrian population again rests on dubious assumptions.

First, it imagines that arming the rebels (i.e., improving their ability to kill Assad's forces) will result in a reduction of violence. Maybe, but maybe not. It could simply produce greater carnage without decisively tipping the scales toward the rebels. Moreover, a Syrian civil war that ends in complete chaos and anarchy in Syria in which ethnic cleansing and population displacement occurs is hardly a moral outcome.

The second, related problem is the arbitrary nature of the obligation. If arms are sent into Syria on the premise that it is a moral obligation, how far does that obligation extend? If the arm shipments fail to stem the bloodshed, then shouldn't Washington enforce a no-fly zone or insert its own forces to defend Syria's beleaguered civilians? Justifying an intervention on moral terms implies a deepening commitment that the U.S. cannot materially fulfill.

Ultimately, Washington's first moral obligation is to the health and safety of its own citizens. If an intervention in Syria does not advance that first obligation and cannot decisively make things better, it's difficult to see why it should be undertaken at all.

3. We need the "good guys" to win

The Obama administration has been urged to arm rebel factions lest "bad guys" (i.e., jihadists) should gain the upper hand. "There is a competition now in Syria between moderate forces (and) the al-Qaida types," Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It is very important that we weigh in."

There is a certain cold, hard logic to this idea: If Syria is going to become a failed state, better to keep the various jihadist groups on their back foot fighting U.S.-backed rebels instead of consolidating their control over more territory. However, this ignores several critical questions: Are we sure the "good guys" really are good? Opposition forces may claim allegiance to Western principles when beseeching international donors, but good intentions can quickly melt away in the face of a struggle for power.

Secondly, and more problematic, is that once weapons enter Syria, the United States has zero capacity to ensure that only "good guys" get them. Weapons are fungible. They can be stolen, diverted, plucked from the bodies of fallen soldiers or transferred from America's preferred parties to jihadists with their own aims. If sophisticated U.S. arms flow into Syria, a black market for those weapons will no doubt flourish, and al-Qaeda will be buying.

4. They've used chemical weapons

President Obama himself gravely warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a "game changer" as far as American policy was concerned. With the administration now acknowledging that those weapons were used, it begs an admittedly blunt question: What difference does it make?

The administration was willing to let over 70,000 Syrians die by bullet and bomb without a direct intervention. Does a sarin gas attack really change the strategic calculus as far as American interests are concerned? Moreover, what is the administration supposed to do? Writing in Bloomberg, Jeffrey Goldberg suggests sending special forces, enforcing a no-fly zone and openly arming the rebels -- none of which are remotely sufficient to adequately secure dispersed stockpiles of chemical weapons, let alone secure the country. Moral outrage at the use of these weapons is justified, but it shoudn't blind us to the fact that bombing Assad out of power won't ensure a stable, secure aftermath for the people we claim to be protecting. All the problems inherent in toppling the regime remain -- whether Syrians have fallen to chemical attacks or more conventional forms of butchery.

Some may argue that American credibility is now on the line after the White House drew a red line. It's true that the administration's future threats will likely be discounted, but that's a smaller price to pay than the steep costs that would be incurred by directly intervening in Syria's civil war. Compounding a small error with a much larger one is no way to restore American credibility. 

The End Game

What unites the four bad arguments for American involvement in Syria is that they treat the fall of Assad as the end of American (and Syrian) troubles, when in fact it would be just the beginning. All of the supposed gains that flow from toppling Assad can only occur if a post-war state can be cobbled together that is secure and institutionally oriented toward the West. Many pundits and analysts have spent an inordinate amount of time lobbying for "leadership" (i.e. an intervention) without addressing the crucial questions of what follows in the aftermath. To wit: Who will secure Syria when Assad falls? Who will fund a post-Assad government? What will stop Iranian influence from hijacking a new Syrian government? Who will protect the Alawite minority in Syria from reprisal killings? Who is responsible for targeting (or at least disarming) jihadist movements inside the country?

And consider this: What makes proponents of a U.S. intervention in Syria believe Washington has the werewithal to restore the country to some semblence of stability? In Iraq, the U.S. spent trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and, in the case of Afghanistan, over a decade trying to nation build with results that could best be described as modest. Have we suddenly become more capable, wealthier and fluent in the various tribal and sectarian intricacies of the Muslim world to make the third time the charm?

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