Commentary Magazine


Thinking Through Our Syrian Options

On the lead-up to a likely strike against Syria by the United States, there are some things most of us can agree on.

One is that Bashar al-Assad is a malevolent figure. Two, a de minimis strike–one that 
is mostly symbolic and does nothing to alter the course of the war–is worse than doing nothing. And three, President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.

The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 

That said, where there is a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, is whether an effective show of force that would alter the balance of power in Syria would be worthwhile.

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

So what is the best outcome we can reasonable hope for? What is the worst outcome we should be most prepared for? What are the odds of each one happening? How likely, and in what ways, will Syria retaliate? How reliable is the FSA? Is Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) “generally acknowledged to be the most effective force fighting al-Assad,” in the words of CNN’s Peter Bergen? If the (relatively) moderate rebels did receive the aid they need, what are their chances of success? And what would success look like? Taking control of Syria (which is hardly likely)? Taking control of parts of Syria? Participating in a coalition government? Comprised of whom? 

These are just some of the difficult, and largely unknowable, questions one has to ask prior to endorsing a military strike.

There would be a significant cost to doing nothing in Syria. There could be significant benefits if we act militarily (including delivering a damaging blow to Syria’s sponsor states, Iran and Russia, as well as to Hezbollah). And it’s also possible that things could be worse–from the standpoint of America, Israel and the region–if Assad is attacked and/or overthrown and jihadists emerge in a dominant position. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”

In all of this I’m reminded of what Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoir White House Years:

Statesmanship requires above all a sense of nuance and proportion, the ability to perceive the essential among a mass of apparent facts, and an intuition as to which of many equally plausible hypotheses about the future is likely to prove true.

Barack Obama has no such perception and intuition; he has proved to be singularly inept at such presidential decision-making. But we cannot unwind what has happened. We are where we are. Syria is a nation that has been ripped apart. The window for a useful American intervention may have closed. And even if it hasn’t, it would require a strategic thinker and statesman of remarkable skill to deal with a dozen moving parts, all which need to be carefully calibrated, in order to help Syria heal; in order for a stable, non-sectarian and non-virulent regime to emerge.

It’s much clearer to me what we shouldn’t do than what we now should do. I suppose that’s sometimes where we find ourselves living in this most untidy world. And when it comes to predicting the course of events and anticipating various contingencies, especially in the Middle East, modesty is probably more appropriate than certitude.

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