I’ll just come right out and say it. I don’t think the U.S. should attack Syria, and it looks as though we’re going to. The uproar in the West is over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons to kill more than a thousand citizens, most of them civilians, in an Aug. 21 attack on several locations in and around Damascus. This was the “red line” that should not be crossed, according to the Obama Administration (actually, Obama’s position is a bit more nuanced than that; left unstated was the possible reactions to crossing the “red line”). But crossed it has been, and therefore we need to send the regime of Bashar al-Assad a message, that is, cruise missiles.
“War comes at the end of the twentieth century as absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” So said poet Adrienne Rich (it appears in her essay collection What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics). The sentiment applies in the Syrian Civil War as well, because if nothing else, our entrance into the two-year-old conflict represents nothing so much as the results of setting a rhetorical and moral trap for Assad but ensnaring ourselves. We set the conditions, and Assad called Obama’s bluff.
Now the choices are pretty bleak, so bleak you can’t help but laugh your way through tears of desperation (which makes this situation perfect fodder for The Onion, the funhouse mirror of the early 21st Century that you later realize is perfectly flat). We can send in a few missiles against Assad (the most likely option, which I’ll refer to as the Spanking Option going forward, for all the good it will likely do to prevent Assad from further transgressions against the sensibilities of the West). We can (and may well) increase our shipments of arms to Syrian rebels (and which might prompt an increase of arms shipments to the Syrian government from its Russian allies). We can launch a prolonged and expensive bombing campaign to enforce a no-fly zone, which we can’t really afford, and might also provoke a response from Moscow. We can launch an invasion (see above). Or we can do nothing, and Obama comes away looking weak.
(There’s also the non-option of targeting Assad for assassination, which, in addition to being insanely difficult, is just answering one breach of international conventions with another, and one which is illegal under U.S. executive order since 1976. And it might not change the net outcome of the conflict, since someone else within the Baathist regime will step into Assad’s shoes to continue the war).
(There’s also the added difficulty of trying to remove Assad from power at all. The U.S. doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to creating power vacuums in the Middle East, and among various rebel groups contesting for power in Syria, quite a few are tied to radical Islamic movements that are, shall we say, less than friendly toward U.S. interests.)
The simple, pithy answer was to not get into this in the first place, to not set a “red line” that should not be crossed. In fact, it’s fair to say that the “red line” argument is a direct extension of the Bush Administration’s hyping of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (and Iran and North Korea) as the damn-the-facts justification to pursue war. (The neocon axis of Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Wolfowitz had other misguided ideas about letting 1,000 flowers of democracy bloom in the Middle East so the oil could keep flowing, but W brought his own personal baggage to what was arguably one of the most ill-conceived examples of imperial adventurism since Vietnam.)
Such was Bush’s drumbeat about Iraq’s chemical, biological and “nucular” weapons that there was nothing to do but invade and depose Saddam Hussein in order to prevent him from ever using those nonexistent weapons. This unholy triad of WMD—chemical, biological, nuclear—was the casus belli for a war about other things, but like many bad ideas, they have taken root in debates in power circles as a magical trigger for throwing out all the rulebooks.
This is despite the fact that most WMDs in the world aren’t. It is very difficult to kill large numbers of people with chemical or biological weapons. Both work best in tightly enclosed spaces packed with a large number of people; a stiff breeze or rainshower could severely diminish the effects of gases or biological agents, the explosives in the delivery vehicles could destroy the agents themselves, unfavorable environmental conditions could neutralize the compounds, so using them in anything other than ideal conditions is extremely difficult for anyone without advanced military, chemical and pharmaceutical infrastructure—a national government can do it; a terrorist cell hiding in a cave likely cannot.
In general, hitting a crowded residential neighborhood with nerve gas shells is probably one of the more effective uses of a chemical weapon, and that appears to be what happened in Damascus. (So is pumping highly concentrated sleeping gas into a crowded theater.)
But in the grand scheme of things, not that many people were killed (the U.S. estimates 1,429 dead). Approximately 100,000 people have died so far from conventional weapons in the Syrian conflict. A well-placed bomb has the potential to do far greater damage than chemical nerve agents, and guns and bombs are responsible for the vast majority of deaths in any conflict.
If anything, biological weapons are even trickier to deploy effectively, since they depend on contagion vectors and lack of immunity and/or treatment options to do their dirty work. (Nuclear weapons are another matter entirely, but Syria is not a nuclear power, nor was Iraq, nor is any other Middle Eastern nation except Israel, which continues to deny the existence of its arsenal despite reports to the contrary.)
Don’t get me wrong: chemical weapons are nasty. People exposed to them suffer painful deaths, or if they survive, may be stuck with lifelong debilitating injuries. They should be outlawed. But guns and bombs have the same effects, and we’re generally not talking about disarming the world’s armies or attacking other nations that shoot their own people—this happens all the time, and only once in a great while do we get involved the way we did in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, to shut down a war with a war of our own.
But what is the trigger to fight a so-called “just war”? The argument for attacking Assad is almost entirely based on these moral terms: he was bad, and therefore must be punished. Syria isn’t a big oil producer, so any economic pull is probably coming from weapons manufacturers who see a potential business opportunity in an expanded conflict (jet fuel and Tomahawk missiles don’t come cheap). The geopolitical impetus is almost entirely driven by the U.S. (with support from Israel premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been wanting us to attack Iran or Syria so Israel won’t have to). The U.K., once-bitten, has elected not to support military action at this time. France, once ridiculed by the Bushies as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” supports an attack (probably influenced by their historical affinity to and ties with Lebanon). Russia, of course, is denying that any chemical attack took place, and will probably continue to do so even after the UN inspection team confirms the attack. So the U.S. acting without the imprimatur of a United Nations mandate or approval of the Security Council is seeming a bit too much like Iraq in 2003.
Be that as it may, it looks like the Spanking Option is the way forward, despite the fact that its purpose has more to do with the U.S. puffing up its chest in the face of a newly resurgent Russia than with solving any on-the-ground problems in Syria. Indeed, the humanitarian crisis in Syria is likely only going to get worse, and Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to change his behavior.
As the writer Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, “Never appeal to a man’s better nature. He might not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.” In this case, Heinlein was prescient. Assad is clearly a monster, but his only interest is remaining in power, and he’s demonstrated he’s willing to do just about anything to do so. Would he be willing to stop his war against his own people if it meant he could stay in power? That could be seen, from Assad’s perspective, as a “mission accomplished” outcome. But President George H.W. Bush once compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler to build support for Operation Desert Shield/Storm, but after Kuwait was liberated, he left Saddam in power, which contributed to Bush’s election defeat in 1992. Would the West be willing to see a similar outcome in Syria, or have we already decided that Bashar al-Assad is the problem that must be eliminated? Instead of saying, by way of comparison, that the Syrian Civil War is the problem? Because those are two distinct problems, and their solutions might not be identical.