The Trouble with Swallowing Syria

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U.S. soldiers delivering non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. They may soon be asked to do more. (Department of Defense photo)

WARNING: This is not an article about Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs on Sunday.  It is an analysis of a serious news story.  If you are looking for less serious news coverage, please feel free to check out any of America’s 24-hour cable news networks.

“Syria is not easy to swallow.”

This rather odd quote was made yesterday by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in regard to possible military action by Western nations against the Assad regime.  We can interpret it in a couple of different ways.  One would be to go for the most literal meaning: it is true that attempting to swallow all 71,479 square miles of Syria would not be easy.  In fact, if this is the meaning Mr. Moallem was going for, I would say he is a bit guilty of understating the issue.

However, I suspect we should interpret the foreign minister’s statement as a metaphor for the difficulty any country would experience when trying to attack Syria.  “We have the materials to defend ourselves.  We will surprise others,” he added.  Based on recent events, I would have to agree that the Assad regime possesses weapons capable of inflicting extensive damage and death.  How capable they are of truly defending themselves against a more sophisticated military assault is yet to be determined.

Don’t worry: we won’t have to wait too long to see how good Assad’s defenses are.  As I sit watching my TV now, I am seeing headlines stating that the U.S. military is prepared to respond to last week’s chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held city of Ghouta – which reportedly killed or wounded over 3,000 peopleas early as Thursday.  Computer animation shows me images of ships and submarines parked in the Mediterranean firing not-quite-to-scale missiles at targets within Syria, all of which are clearly marked by symbols indicating a military installation, chemical weapons depot, etc.  Of course, none of the missiles go astray and hit civilians in this scenario.

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry came out and made a statement condemning the “moral obscenity” of the Assad regime’s suspected chemical weapons use. (We must say “suspected” even though pretty much everyone but Russia is in agreement as to what happened.) UN inspectors are attempting to conduct an investigation of the site, but have encountered difficulties along the way, including sniper fire that hit one of their vehicles yesterday.  Kerry accused the Syrian regime of “systematically destroying evidence”.

At this point, the question regarding U.S. military action seems to be one of “when” rather than “if”.  But perhaps the most appropriate question to ask is “how”, as in, “How can the U.S. actually improve the situation on the ground in Syria?”  Cruise missile strikes could be used to set back Assad’s military efforts, providing a temporary opening for the rebels to make some gains.  However, it is unlikely that they would actually force Assad to step down, and they certainly would not move the country any closer to having an alternative government that does not include hardened terrorist elements.

This is why the Obama administration has not pursued military action up to this point: because it would cost too much to get any real benefit.  Bringing down the Assad regime, securing the country, and building up a replacement government would require a significant military and financial commitment, including troops on the ground for several years.  This is where Moallem’s comment about swallowing really rings true: the American people are not ready to swallow the costs of another substantial war in the Middle East.

It is possible that a more limited military operation could have seen greater benefits within the first year after the protests against Assad started.  At this point, defectors from the regular Syrian army made up a larger proportion of the opposition, and the transition from Assad to something else could have been smoother.  But now that the situation has degenerated into a bloody civil war with al-Qaeda related elements playing a prominent role in the opposition, the U.S. is understandably cautious about how it approaches the issue.  We have now reached the point where a limited response, such as what happened in Libya, is probably not going to be very effective.

The problem is that President Obama chose to make the use of chemical weapons his “red line” that must not be crossed.  In one sense, I can understand this.  Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction, and thus they are viewed differently under international law and in a more practical sense.

However, I think we could also say that the thousands of people who have been killed over the past 2+ years by conventional weapons and the millions who have been forced from their homes are just as much of a “moral obscenity” (to use Kerry’s term) as those who were killed in Ghouta.  In this sense, it seems a bit arbitrary to choose the type of weapon as our red line.

Nevertheless, the red line was set and it is now time to follow through on that promise, for as Senator John McCain has been eager to point out in recent days, our word isn’t worth much if we don’t back up our threats.  Thus, the strikes that will be made against the Assad regime will be as much about protecting America’s reputation as bringing an end to this bloody affair.  Whatever strategy we use, it will be extensive enough to make our point but limited enough to keep us from getting bogged down in a fight that quite possibly cannot be won by anyone.

Perhaps if Iraq hadn’t gone so badly, our calculations regarding intervention in the Middle East would be a bit different.  Still, we learned some important lessons in Iraq: the wars that don’t go well are often greater learning experiences than those that do, because the glow of victory has a way of obscuring reality.

History will decide if President Obama has been appropriately hesitant or dangerously indecisive on this issue.  For now, we can only wait and hope that whatever happens in Syria will be an improvement on what has gone before.  As usual, it is our lack of control that is most difficult to swallow.