May 4, 2013


Syria has dominated much of the recent news about events occurring outside our borders. Reports of the civil war in that country have gained greater urgency with revelations about the use of sarin gas, a nerve agent, especially given the Obama Administration's previous mention that use of a chemical agent would be a "red line" event spurring the intervention of the US. Syria has long been known to maintain the world's fourth largest stockpile of chemical weapons and security analysts and policy makers have feared the potential compromise of those stockpiles in the chaos that always accompanies war. In fact, just this past week there was reporting about al-Qadea affiliates battling for control of a chemical munitions factory with the related concern that should such material fall into the hands of a terror-group no one knows where they might pop-up next -- an attack on Israel, Turkey, some European target or perhaps the US itself?

A common question that arises in any discussion about Syria--or similar situations such as Mali, Nigeria, Libya, North Korea, etc.--is "why should the U.S. care?" What are our interests in such conflicts or why should we be concerned about who-kills-whom in such faraway and seemingly always-in-crisis places? What does it matter which odious regime is in control of some desolate patch of sand that produces little if anything that contributes to the global marketplace? After all, we've sacrificed thousands of lives and spent trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provided billions in foreign aid toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others and what does it seem to have gotten us? Corrupt officials that are enriched with US-taxpayer provided funds; Islamist groups that were previously kept in check by the local strongman but which are now freed and strengthened to impose their own brand of tyranny; or supposedly 'moderate' governments that after ascending to power (thanks to the US) let contracts for energy exploration, military equipment purchases, and access to strategic minerals to everyone else except the US. The easy answer is for us to stay home. After all, we certainly have sufficient troubles of our own to demand our attention without seeking places elsewhere to spend our blood and treasure.  

But more than any other country in the world our interests really are global. Our most immediate interest vis-a-vis the Syrian civil war is the impact it is having on a region about which we do (or should) care. Last I've read, the war has generated over a million refugees who are pouring over the borders into Jordan and Turkey--Jordan being one of the very few stabilizing powers in the region (meaning not-yet-radicalized), something important to Israel, and Turkey being a NATO ally that is itself teetering between Western secularism and a radicalized Islamic state. The longer the conflict lasts, the stronger the foothold of the more extreme radical Islamist elements; Hezbollah is one of those elements (supporting Assad) and is extending its reach from the southern half of Lebanon it already controls (thanks to munitions provided by Assad and Iran). Should Assad prevail, he will remain a close ally of Iran, thus extending Iran's influence in an arc stretching from western Afghanistan to the northern border of Israel. Further, the conflict in Syria can be viewed as a proxy war between Sunni (the rebels) and Shia (the Assad government), between Saudi Arabia (as the primary Sunni power) and Iran (the chief Shia power). The course and outcome of the Syrian civil war will have an impact on US interests for many years to come. Sadly, there aren't any good options at all for US involvement -- one can't tip just a toe into this torrent but we can't simply ignore it either. 

Some folks have suggested we impose a no-fly-zone(s) to either impede Assad's forces from effectively attacking the rebels or to create safe zones for refugees. But this isn't easy to do: 1) we would need the support of another country in the region agreeing to allow the US to fly combat air patrols from its bases, a policy decision for that country that would have to account for its own domestic political situations; 2) to keep our aircraft safe we would need to neutralize Syria's air defense system (meaning destroying their radar and/or antiaircraft missile systems) thus making us an active participant in offensive actions against the Assad government; 3) having aircraft in the air over Syria would raise new policy/morality-sensitive decisions given we would have the ability to intervene in situations where either government or rebel forces posed a threat to civilian populations--i.e. not preventing harm when we had the ability to do so might cause additional problems for the US in the court of domestic and world opinion; 4) it presumes a decision on our point regarding Syria's sovereignty, and 5) having introduced ourselves into the conflict we would at some level link ourselves to the final outcome and to the regional competition amongst all the various actors (Iran, Syria, Turkey, Hezbollah, etc., etc.). 

But, if we stay uninvolved, we will have no influence on the shape of a post-civil-war Syria; will have taken no steps to try to preclude the rise of a replacement regime that may be even more problematic for US interests; will have compromised whatever level of influence we currently have in the region (re Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, et al); will have sent a clear message to Israel regarding our willingness to get involved in matters that clearly effect their security interests (remember how they bombed Syria's nuclear facility when no one else would take action); and will have stood by while yet another slaughter of civilians occurs (the Clinton Administration deeply regretted not taking action to preclude the Rwandan genocide and George H. W. Bush was heavily criticized for allowing Saddam Hussein to gas the Kurds at the conclusion of the First Gulf War).

Again, there are no good options. 

In such cases, our policies should be strictly framed in terms of our self-serving national security interests. I suspect we will funnel arms from third-party sources to select rebel groups much as we did to support the Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets. You might remember that the current USD for Intelligence is the same guy who handled the arming, training, and tactical employment of Mujahideen thirty years ago (also here) -- meaning, we have people currently in key positions who know how to do this sort of thing.

Stratfor is a 'global intelligence' service that provides most of its products by subscription but also publishes a number of its items for public consumption. One of their most recent releases is an exceptionally good overview of the Syrian civil war and the challenges that accompany any thoughts about intervention. If you've any curiosity about what's going on over there, take a few minutes to read "Redlines and the Problems of Intervention in Syria." Here's a sampling of the many good insights provided in the article:
    "What the United States learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is that it is relatively easy for a conventional force to destroy a government. It is much harder -- if not impossible -- to use the same force to impose a new type of government. The government that follows might be in some moral sense better than what preceded it -- it is difficult to imagine a more vile regime than Saddam Hussein's -- but the regime that replaces it will first be called chaos, followed by another regime that survives to the extent that it holds the United States at arm's length."   and...
    "Many things are beyond the military power of the United States. Creating constitutional democracies by invasion is one of those things. There will be those who say intervention is to stop the bloodshed, not to impose Western values. Others will say intervention that does not impose Western values is pointless. Both miss the point. You cannot stop a civil war by adding another faction to the war unless that faction brings overwhelming power to bear. The United States has a great deal of power, but not overwhelming power, and overwhelming power's use means overwhelming casualties. And you cannot transform the political culture of a country from the outside unless you are prepared to devastate it as was done with Germany and Japan."

Lastly, I found this piece rather interesting if only for these two paragraphs: 
    "If a strong and well-armed individual refuses to come to the aid of someone being assaulted, we judge that person harshly — because his obligations are clear: He should defend the victim, even at the risk of injury to himself. If he displays a willingness to sacrifice his own well being in the act of fulfilling his moral duty, we call him selflessly courageous; it he doesn't, we denounce him for cowardice and selfishness. That's how moral judgment works.
    "But it's not how statesmanship works. The primary duty of the nation's commander in chief — the duty that overrides all others — is to uphold the common good of the United States and protect the rights of individual American citizens. If that sounds selfish, that's because it is. And rightly so. The president's duty is to us. He can have no duty to the citizens of another nation. That's why the greatest acts of statesmanship will always be more self-interested than the highest acts of individual virtue."

I don't agree with the absolute nature of the author's conclusion at the end of his article. I think national security policy is an inherently complex thing influenced by myriad factors that are all extraordinarily context-sensitive. That said, I do concur that a President's primary responsibility is to our country and our people. But it is also the case that the values embedded in the founding principles of our country call us to do things that other countries seldom do...such as involve ourselves in the affairs of others when we feel a greater good is being served, especially in cases when that greater good ultimately serves our own interests.

Our way forward with respect to Syria will be a one-day-at-a-time sort of affair. I've no doubt this Administration would just as soon see one side or the other 'win' so that it can deal with whatever the resulting power structure turns out to be but I'm also quite confident such a resolution will not come easily or quickly. It's one ugly mess and only time will tell as to how it all sorts out. 


  1. This is what I find troubling with this administration. There is no moral stance being taken. It has been discussed...the so called "red line" of using chemical weapons. But that moral stance has not proven unwavering. There is no policy stance. Using Stratfor's example, the president could say unequivocally that it is not our responsibility to effect an outcome in Syria's civil war. The difficulty of the strategies you discuss would underscore that argument. I also do not agree with Stratfor's last statement, but it clearly is an argument that could be made. I view the President as representing the American people, and many American's would want a moral decision to be made. Perhaps equally as many would want a policy or statesmanlike decision to be made. I see neither. That lack of leadership is hugely troubling to me.

    1. The American public has shown repeatedly over the years that they will go to extraordinary lengths in support of a policy, even at great personal/public expense, when a sound, compelling case is made that clearly explains 'why' that policy should be undertaken. What they don't like is obfuscation, double-talk, and getting the feeling they're being sold a bill of goods. I think our citizenry just wants to know the arguments, the pros and cons, and the likely consequences of doing or not doing a given thing. Just "lay it out there", make the case, and hear what the people say. I agree that this is currently lacking in our national-level approach to this issue and so many others.

  2. I was walking through Mount Vernon a month or so ago thinking about this. I saw the key to the Bastille hanging on the wall -- a gift from LaFeyette. The French tried to build a new nation built on the American revolutionary principles of Life, Liberty and Happiness; only they used Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. And because of that they made a bloody, atrocity filled mess of their revolution.

    If the French couldn't get it right, why should we expect the Syrians under Islamic political theory to do it better?

    The solution is difficult given our history, and the nature of the players in the region. But, thanks to the United Nations there is a simple path forward.

    A general council should be convened, and every Islamic nation should vote. Then every Islamic nation should enforce that vote. The United States, through Israel, will supply food, water and medical supply if asked.

    1. I'd take your first point and apply it to your second...meaning, there has to be a relevant cultural context for a given policy to take root and bear fruit. Our approach to government was built on the study, understanding, and appreciation of centuries of experience evolving from ancient Greece onward. There was an evolved "Western" tradition that included forms of government, culture, art/literature, religion and a way of thinking. Representative government that includes 'free and fair' elections is the culmination of a very long process, not something you impose on a dissimilar culture expecting 'Western liberal democracy' to sprout like Athena from the brow of Zeus. While running the very clear risk of stereotyping I think it fair to say that Middle Eastern-flavors of Islam are too heavily framed by clan/tribal culture and a historical/culture paradigm that gives primacy to long-term survival of one's family/tribe for a democratic form of action (as expected from a UN-style council vote) to be effective in any practical sense. Bush-41's success in forming and holding together an Arab Coalition needed to eject Hussein from Kuwait was predicated on the Saudi's seeing a direct threat from Hussein and bringing the Gulf States along. Given the Shia-Sunni nature of the conflict in Syria, I think an Islamic coalition voting in one voice re a response to the Syrian civil war is highly problematic.