The least terrible policy in Syria: Doing nothing

Sending armies or air forces to stop jihadists from grabbing Syria’s chemical weapons would be inordinately daunting and dangerous – and inconclusive.   

I, too, would like to neutralize the threat of the jihadists in Syria, and Hezbollah, and the possibility that they will take control of Assad’s chemical weapons (and worse, much worse, his possible biological weapons). But how is that going to be accomplished? Here, according to Haaretz’s Amos Harel, is what the Americans think it will take.

In briefings recently for American media representatives, administration officials have said that removing the chemical weapons threat in Syria would require ground operations involving no fewer than 75,000 U.S. troops, probably with assistance from other countries. …

A military operation in Syria would require precise intelligence at an extraordinary level. It’s reasonable to assume that it would also involve military resistance on the part of the Assad regime … Intelligence experts are divided over whether Iran and Hezbollah would help defend the Syrian chemical weapon sites in the event of a U.S.-led military operation targeting them. But that would just be the beginning of America’s headache.

The weaponry would have to be collected on the ground and perhaps transported outside of Syria so it could be neutralized and buried; either that or the facilities in which the weapons are stored would have to be destroyed. That’s a task of rare proportions which would take many months to carry out, even if the capture of the weapons proceeded more easily than expected.

If it were possible to do the whole thing by remote control, to simply bomb the chemical/biological weapons out of commission, I’d be in favor of that – so long as innocent people weren’t anywhere remotely close to the explosions, and so long as all that poison couldn’t be carried on the wind anyplace. But such conditions, obviously, are impossible. So bombing the weapons out of existence isn’t an option, either. (The Free Syrian Army says Israel hit a chemical weapons site in the country on Saturday, but there’s been no word from Damascus or Jerusalem on it.)

In all, I can’t think of anything Israel, the United States or anybody else can do to ensure that Syria’s chemical and maybe biological weapons don’t come into the possession of Islamic terrorists. The prospective “no-fly zone” that a lot of Americans are talking about might make it harder for Assad to prosecute the war and thus bring down the level of killing – or it might not. At any rate, a no-fly zone is not going to remove the chemical/biological weapons from Syria or the jihadists who would like to have them.

And I don’t believe Israeli leaders think the air force can stop those weapons from being smuggled out by repeating indefinitely what it did in January – bombing a weapons convoy that was moving from Syria to Lebanon, without Israelis getting injured. If the air force bombs Syria repeatedly, it seems pretty likely that Syrian or Hezbollah missiles will start falling in Israel, and after that anything could happen.

But the thing is, even if Israel or the United States could neutralize all the chemical and biological weapons and all the terrorists in Syria and Lebanon, there would still be plenty more of them around and plenty more being created all the time. And one other thing – the terrorists and those sorts of weapons have been around for a long time, many decades, and so far they haven’t come together. I don’t think it’s because the jihadists are incapable of getting and using such weapons. I remember after 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani said the thing he feared most was somebody going up with a crowd of tourists to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, taking a tiny plastic bag out of his pocket and sprinkling a few specks of anthrax into the winds over Manhattan and killing hundreds of thousands. It hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t seem that hard to do. There have to be other reasons why Al Qaeda-style groups have not used chemical or biological weapons or “dirty bombs” or other reasonably accessible mass killing instruments against its enemies, and I think one of the reasons is deterrence: The reaction against the jihadists and their world, or worlds, would be catastrophic beyond imagination.

I’m not saying such an attack can’t or won’t ever happen. But since it hasn’t yet, and since there’s no way to get rid of the threat, and since an attempt to get rid of it in Syria would seem to be so inordinately daunting and dangerous – and inconclusive – I think the least terrible option is to do nothing and go on trusting to deterrence.  To refrain from attacking anything and anybody in Syria unless they attack first.

As for the humanitarian consideration – the need to stop Assad from killing people by the tens of thousands – if a no-fly zone could help, then by all means. But foreign soldiers should not be ordered to get between Assad and the jihadists who are leading the fight against him. If anybody wants to volunteer to go there as a peacekeeping troop, good luck to him, but no country owes it to Syria or to humanity to risk its soldiers’ lives on such a mission.

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