Thursday, April 6, 2017

War in Syria

Since the recent chemical attack on Syrian civilians, ostensibly carried out by President Assad's military, war drums have been beating on the American left, right and center. President Trump has responded with tough words and there's mounting pressure on him to back up his rhetoric with decisive action.

For my part I don't know what those calling for a tough response want the United States to do, exactly. Any military action we take runs a serious risk of bringing us into direct conflict with Russia, and I don't think anyone wants that. Even if that didn't happen what good would come of bombing some airfields when the Russians would quickly repair and resupply the Syrian losses?

Sean Davis, co-founder of The Federalist, has a list of fourteen questions he says need to be answered before we make any military moves that would lead us into another war like those in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. He writes:
These calls [to do something to depose Assad] are understandable given the magnitude of death and destruction wreaked by Assad. But what proponents of military action to depose Assad have not explained is what our clear national security interest is there, what political victory looks like, what our main risks are, and what costs we will be required to pay in order to achieve that victory.

To avoid what happened in Iraq — a swift initial military victory followed by costly guerrilla warfare, political instability, premature U.S. withdrawal, and eventual political defeat leading to a less stable and more dangerous situation than before we invaded — I desperately want solid, well-researched answers to the following questions about our ultimate goals in Syria, how we as a nation plan to achieve them, and what costs we are ultimately willing to bear.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers. And I don’t intend for these questions to be perceived as unfair or leading in any way. I’m not attempting to make a statement or promote a point of view in asking them. If our nation is going to wage war, and if we are going to pay a price in dollars and in American lives as a result of that decision, we are owed answers to questions that were never adequately answered before we went into Iraq.

We owe it to the American men and women whose blood was shed in Iraq, and their families, to not repeat the same mistakes we made there in Syria. We owe it to the men and women who would be deployed overseas to have a clear understanding of our political goals in Syria, what military resources will be required to achieve them, and what risks we face, both militarily and politically, as a result of approving military action to remove Assad.
Here are Davis' questions:
  1. What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?
  2. How will deposing Assad make America safer?
  3. What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved? Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?
  4. What other countries will join the United States in deposing Assad, in terms of military, monetary, or diplomatic resources?
  5. Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?
  6. What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?
  7. What military resources (e.g., ground troops), diplomatic resources, and financial resources will be required to achieve this political victory?
  8. How long will it take to achieve political victory?
  9. If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?
  10. Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?
  11. Assuming the Assad regime is successfully removed from power, what type of government structure will be used to replace Assad, who will select that government, and how will that government establish and maintain stability going forward?
  12. Given that a change in political power in the United States radically altered the American position in Iraq in 2009, how will you mitigate or address the risk of a similar political dynamic upending your preferred strategy in Syria, either in 2018, 2020, or beyond?
  13. What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?
  14. What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?
Good questions. I supported Bush's invasion of Iraq, but that war was waged amidst a much different set of circumstances. Saddam Hussein, you may recall, was believed by every intelligence service among our allies to have had weapons of mass destruction and was thought by those same experts to be planning to use them. He was also politically isolated and lacked allies, and there were at the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 no other factions in Iraq to confuse the battlefield. Syria is not like Iraq in any of these respects.

Moreover, the chaos and casualties that followed our eventual drawdown from Iraq would probably be much worse after a war in Syria.

President Obama is widely thought to have blundered by drawing a "red line" and warning Syria that the use of chemical weapons would cross that line. He also evidently blundered when he declared that Syria had rid itself of chemical weapons. Having drawn the "red line" he lost credibility with every tyrant in the world when he refused to do anything when Assad did cross it. Now it may be too late to do anything militarily to help the Syrian people in their suffering.

I doubt that there are any good answers to Davis' questions, but there is something you can do to help the victims of Assad and ISIS, and it may be more effective in the long term than guns and bombs. This video is a plea for help from Jeremy Courtney, the founder of an organization called Preemptive Love that seeks to bring aid to victims of both ISIS and Bashar Assad:
If you'd like to help you can do so here.