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Think Again: A Realistic Approach to Syria

President Obama takes questions on Syria

SOURCE: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama answered questions from the press on April 30, 2013, regarding chemical-weapons use in Syria. Though many senators are clamoring for heightened U.S. involvement in the crisis, none has suggested responsible ways of doing so.

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Syria, as the cliche goes, is a “problem from Hell.” Listening to conservative experts on the Sunday morning talk shows, however, it all appears to be pretty simple. As New York Times correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg noted:

On Sunday, several leading Republicans—including Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, both of whom are members of the Armed Services Committee—used appearances on television talk shows to warn that failure to intervene in Syria would embolden nations like Iran and North Korea.

Remarkably, these critics appeared to know, apparently instinctively, what the leaders of other nations were thinking. According to Sen. Graham (R-SC) on CBS’s “Face the Nation”:

If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action toward Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program. … The whole region is going to fall into chaos.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, added on the ABC News program “This Week,” that “more than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this.” Most enthusiastic, perhaps, is 35-year-old Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who told Politico that the United States should go all in on Syria by offering “lethal assistance” to the rebels and possibly a no-fly zone policed by U.S. war planes together with its naval fleet. Sounding as if he were speaking of Vietnam in 1965, or perhaps Iraq in 2003, he announced, “The president’s credibility, and therefore America’s credibility, is … on the line.”

Also on Sunday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) insisted, according to the AP, “For America to sit on the sidelines and do nothing is a huge mistake.” This may be correct, but to say that the United States is sitting on the sidelines in Syria is flagrantly false. As the pro-intervention John Judis explained in The New Republic:

The administration also announced sanctions against the Syrian government, but couldn’t get the Russians and Chinese to go along with a Security Council resolution on sanctions. In 2012, the administration began sending humanitarian and later “non-lethal” aid to the opposition, including trucks and communications equipment. This year, the administration began training opposition forces, and there have been reports that the Central Intelligence Agency is working to provide arms, but American aid, along with that from Arab countries and Turkey, has not been enough to tilt the contest in the opposition’s favor.

This is quite a bit of involvement when one considers that, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll, the vast majority of Americans (62 percent to 24 percent) don’t think the United States has a responsibility to intervene in Syria.

This number changes when one adds the possibility that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its opponents, with 45 percent of Americans favoring military intervention and 31 percent opposing, according to the Pew Research Center. President Barack Obama said that this would constitute a “red line” for the United States, and while such weapons were apparently used in the conflict, we don’t know “how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”

The problem is figuring out what to do about all of the above. An estimated 70,000 people have already lost their lives in the Syrian conflict, and the 1 million or so refugees fleeing the situation threaten to destabilize Syria’s nervous neighbors. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has a horrible human-rights record, regardless of the sarin gas controversy, but the rebels may be no better from the standpoint of human rights and/or U.S. interests.

Groups with ties to Al Qaeda have grown in influence in the resistance, as Ben Hubbard reported this weekend for The New York Times. It appears likely that a rebel victory might result in a chaotic bloodbath, a pro-Jihadist Islamic regime supporting terrorism, massive human-rights violations, or some nightmarish combination of all three. Hubbard explains:

In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.

Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.

And don’t forget, nothing about the Assad regime’s behavior implies it is going to go quietly.

But, as a Sunday New York Times editorial explains:

For all their exhortations, what the senators and like-minded critics have not offered is a coherent argument for how a more muscular approach might be accomplished without dragging the United States into another extended and costly war and how it might yield the kind of influence and good will for this country that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have not.

To be honest, I would have no idea what to do here. I’m really happy it’s the decision of people such as President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rather than yours truly. None of their options is going to yield a peaceful outcome consistent with the liberal Western values of human rights and democracy. It’s not even clear which combination of actions is more likely to stop the slaughter or prevent the continued collapse of the country and its incipient threat to Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and so on. The potential use of chemical weapons makes the situation all the more problematic without pointing toward any apparent solution. And the implied effect of the U.S. response in Syria on regimes such as North Korea and Iran is entirely hypothetical.

Many of the same people making this argument for a U.S military response today insisted a decade ago that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would have a helpful deterrent effect on these same regimes when, in fact, it appears to have done just the opposite. Much the same could be said about Vietnam. Military-minded critics will attack the administration no matter what the result since no available options can “solve” the Syrian crisis. For all the expertise in apparent in hawkish neoconservative circles, clairvoyance remains in short supply.

Three members of the Center for American Progress have attempted to come up with a baseline policy designed to respond to the current situation in light of what they believe to be the Assad regime’s likely use of chemical weapons. Peter Juul, Rudy deLeon, and Brian Katulis suggest “three steps the United States can take going forward to lead the response to these concerns”:

  1. Demand an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the Assad regime’s likely chemical-weapons use.
  2. Engage NATO and regional partners in planning the U.S. response.
  3. Request that NATO and other allies begin planning for a major multinational refugee relief mission in Jordan.

These appear to be steps that will allow the international community to engage the humanitarian crisis and plan for the future without tying our hands, risking the lives of our troops, or pretending we know how to read the minds of our adversaries. What’s more, none of them appears likely to make this awful situation even worse. They may not work for a politician trying to portray machismo with a Sunday morning sound bite, but then again, reality—and prudence—rarely do.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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