Syria war drumbeat builds, but where is it leading?
Pundits from John Bolton to Nick Kristof are issuing calls to arms. But there's little regard for national interest, or the law of unintended consequences, in the urgings to act now.
I looked up from my desk, and a wave of nausea and anger washed over me as a I saw the body of a little girl in a party dress. The images were twinned to a UN report that alleges 1,000 children were killed in Syria last year, largely by the regime, and that kids had also been subjected to sexual assaults and torture by security forces.
But then I started thinking. How often had I seen on CNN the broken bodies of children killed in Iraq during the US occupation, or by NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan, or by drone strikes in Pakistan? The answer I came up with from my own recollections was "never." I asked around the newsroom, and most folks there agreed.
The point is not to draw equivalencies, but simply to point out the implied argument made by the unusual choice to show these murdered kids: A special horror is unfolding in Syria, and the world (read, the US) must do something to stop it.
Perhaps the world should. But far less explored are the practicalities of military intervention, the risks that horrors as great or greater await by widening Syria's civil war into an international conflict. For now, a simple narrative is being spun of a depraved Assad and his helpless victims. Serving that cause yesterday were claims from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Russia was rushing deliveries of attack helicopters to Assad's army "which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
Russia is denying that claim, saying it's only repairing MI-24 (Hind) gunships which were sold to Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, more than a decade ago. Either way, such helicopters would be more useful for fighting the Free Syrian Army or other armed rebel groups than targeting civilians. Syria has thousands of tanks, mortars, and artillery pieces and 600,000 soldiers who are the main threat to civilian population centers.
So if you were for, or against, going to war with Syria before the claims were made about the helicopters, your thinking shouldn't be shifted. And make no mistake, the longer Syria's war goes on, the greater the likelihood that President Assad will follow in his father's footsteps with a truly horrific massacre. In 1982, Assad the elder had at least 10,000 residents of the city of Hama killed in an atrocity that ended an Islamist uprising against his Baath regime.
In the US, there are surprising signs of support for a US intervention. A Monitor/TIPP poll conducted from June 1 to June 8 found that 15 percent of Americans think the US should "take the lead" in a military intervention in Syria and that 19 percent think the US should "lead from behind encouraging and bolstering military action by many countries but not driving it." The poll's margin of error was plus/minus 3.3 percentage points.
While the most popular answers were the US should not get involved militarily (29 percent) or only if "no ground campaign is involved" (27 percent), it's surprising that 34 percent of Americans are willing to consider a direct military engagement in another Middle Eastern country when the war in Iraq just ended and the war in Afghanistan continues. More atrocities in Syria will surely tip the needle closer to public support.
Many opinion makers are pushing for a US-initiated invasion as soon as possible, from the neocon John Bolton to the influential columnist and liberal interventionist Nick Kristof. Mr. Kristof offers an emotion-laden, moralistic call to arms over Syria (and Sudan) while ignoring the uncomfortable question of whether that really serves American interests.
The reliably hawkish Mr. Bolton at least tries to make the case. He argues in a piece for the National Review this week that President Barack Obama should ignore the concerns of some that unilateral action could put the US at loggerheads with Russia, and undermine whatever slim hopes that negotiations with Iran (another key backer of Mr. Assad) over its nuclear program could succeed. In fact, he seems to relish the prospect.
First, he regrets that President George W. Bush didn't extend the war in Iraq to Syria in 2003. He writes: "In the days just after Saddam’s ouster in 2003, conditions were optimal (if nonetheless imperfect) for overthrowing Assad and replacing his regime with something compatible with American interests."
Then he asserts that since Syria is close to Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah in Lebanon that "regime change in Syria is prima facie in America’s interest, as well as the interests of Israel and our Arab friends in the region."
Then he suggest a broader conflict might be a good idea: "Significantly, US intervention could not be confined to Syria and would inevitably entail confronting Iran and possibly Russia," he writes. "This the Obama administration is unwilling to do, although it should."
Does he remember what happened the last time he successfully led the charge for a US-led war in the Middle East?
Saddam Hussein was among the most vicious tyrants of the last half of the twentieth century, which is saying something. Bolton and others pushed hard for a war they promised would be quick and cheap and would transform Iraq into a prosperous bastion of democracy that would serve as a beacon for the region. Instead, half a million Iraqis died as the country became a magnet for Al Qaeda-style jihaddis and a sectarian civil war broke out that tens of thousands of US troops could do little to contain. The cost to the US was somewhere north of $1 trillion, not to mention the nearly 5,000 US soldiers who died and countless more who lost their health and limbs.
Today, violence is far down from the peak of the war, but terrorism is a sort of background radiation seeded there by the war and that continues to ooze through the Iraqi nation. Today's sectarian car-bomb attacks against Shiite pilgrims in at least four different Iraqi cities, which killed at least 65 people, are just the latest outrage. The US government estimates that 13,600 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2007. Last year, that number dropped to 3,063, but that was still high enough to place Iraq second, after Afghanistan, in the annual terrorism death toll.
The Iraqi central government remains split between hostile Shiite and Sunni factions. Basic service delivery such as medical care and electricity remains poor. Corruption and torture by the police and politically motivated prosecutions remain commonplace. Between one-half and two-thirds of Iraq's ancient Christian community have been driven out of the country since 2003. And a regime that was a staunch opponent of Iran (the country that Bolton promises will inevitably need to be confronted in the event of war in Syria) has been replaced with one that is friendly to it.
And while the violence unfolding in Syria is heart-wrenching, it isn't currently directed at the US. The Iraq war drew in jihadis from around the Middle East, eager to kill US soldiers in the name of Islam. Hundreds of Sunni jihadis have already entered Syria from the Middle East and South Asia to fight Assad's Alawite dominated regime. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam that Sunni jihadis view as apostates, and they're eager to replace the Baath regime with an Islamic caliphate, just like the one they foolishly believed they could impose on Iraq. US boots on the ground and supporters of Al Qaeda have traditionally been a volatile combination.
A US-led effort to oust Assad? If the US made it a priority, there is little doubt that could be accomplished relatively quickly (just as in the case of Saddam Hussein). What comes next? Just as unpredictable and dangerous.
You'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel for the Syrian people or ponder a righteous war to save the country from more pain. But sound decisions aren't made from emotion. And actions from the best of intentions can sometimes lead to outcomes as grim or grimmer than any now currently imagined.