Why Obama should stay out of Syria

It’s a mission impossible.

Because of the severe (and understandable) limitations it’s placing on a possible military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration would do better to pass on the idea. The U.S. shouldn’t try to play the humanitarian in a civil war like that one under such self-imposed restrictions; it’s much more likely to end up doing harm than good.

Since last Wednesday’s chemical weapons attack that killed at least many hundreds of Syrian civilians, and which the U.S., Britain, France, Israel and others are convinced was carried out by Assad’s forces, Obama has been gearing up for some sort of military move. The ones most discussed are reportedly a “surgical strike” on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons by missiles fired from long range by U.S. ships, and/or the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria. Nobody is talking about putting American or other Western soldiers on the ground there, not as fighters or as peacekeepers; after Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody wants to get in the middle of another Middle Eastern civil war. Instead, the idea is a no-risk, remote control operation that stops the use of chemical weapons, doesn’t last long, and that has a guaranteed exit strategy.

In other words, if the Syrians or their ally in the field Hezbollah hit back at American targets after a U.S. missile strike, or violate a no-fly zone, or attack Israel or Turkey or Saudi Arabia or some other enemy and thereby take the Syrian war regional, it would screw up the plan. America would have to strike back decisively – as many times as it takes – or walk away humiliated, giving Assad, Hezbollah and Iran an undreamed-of victory.

Neither America nor any other Western power has the stomach for such an adventure. And the thing is, Assad, Hezbollah and Iran know it, which would seem to almost guarantee that if the U.S. acts militarily in Syria, it will meet with military resistance. Real simple: If America can’t stand the heat, and it can’t, it should stay the hell out of the kitchen, or rather the oven that is the Syrian civil war.

But even if Assad and Hezbollah didn’t retaliate against U.S. action, how much good could America do?  At best it would destroy a lot of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, but there will still be plenty left. And it would not reduce the killing going on in that country. In less than two and a half years of civil war, at least 100,000 Syrians were killed by purely conventional means before last Wednesday; neither Assad’s army nor his jihadist-dominated opponents need nerve gas to kill hundreds or even more people in a single day. They’ve done it plenty of times with conventional rockets, bombs, bullets and even more primitive weapons, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue after the U.S. missile strike, if it happens, is done.

As for a no-fly zone, this June 17 article in Time magazine is worth reading. It quotes U.S. military officials and experts saying Syria’s world-class air defenses would make such an operation much more dangerous for U.S. pilots than any no-fly zone they’d patrolled in the past. An even more sobering point about the limited value of a no-fly zone is made by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“About 10% of the casualties that are being imposed on the Syrian opposition are occurring through the use of air power,” Dempsey estimated in late April. “The other 90% are by direct fire or by artillery.”

Yet another prohibition on U.S. military action, one that’s obvious, is that by hurting Assad’s forces, Obama would not be helping the “good guys” in the war because there are none, except for the Syrian nationalists who started the uprising but are now a marginal factor. By hurting Assad, Obama for the most part would be helping Al Qaeda and the other jihadists leading the opposition, which can’t be good for his or America’s morale. And Assad, Hezbollah and Iran know that, too, which would give them one more reason to hang tough.

So why is Obama seemingly very close to getting America’s armed forces involved in Syria? Because he’s committed himself publicly to doing so if Assad uses chemical weapons; he’s called that a “red line,” and the president of the United States isn’t supposed to make empty threats or he’ll hold America and himself up to ridicule, he’ll project weakness to America’s enemies, and no president wants to do that. The other reason is because the killing of many hundreds of civilians, including children, with a weapon of mass destruction, with chemical weapons such as the nerve agents evidently used in Syria last Wednesday, strikes a kind of absolute fear and loathing in many people that spurs them to demand action. That they can tolerate the killing of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians, including children, by other, no less gruesome methods, as well as that of millions of African civilians, including children, over the years, is irrelevant; Assad used chemical weapons on civilians, the U.S. president called this a red line, so, in the view of many folks, he has to act.

But he shouldn’t get Americans killed. And he shouldn’t get in too deep, and he should get out soon. And he should have something to show for it in the end. And he shouldn’t make things worse.

Under those sorts of restraints, this is a mission impossible, and Obama should not get into it. If Assad uses chemical weapons again, if he gasses hundreds of civilians, including children, again, and again, let America and the rest of the world see what more they can do in the way of rescue. With the kind of terminally hamstrung military campaign they’re discussing in Washington, London and Paris, they’d be largely going through the motions of humanitarian intervention in Syria, one that has little if any chance of saving lives, and a substantial chance of forfeiting many more of them.