Everyone seems to want Barack Obama to attack Syria. The Syrian government wants it, because the entry into the conflict of The Great Satan is good for recruiting purposes on the other side. That’s why, in all likelihood, they either staged or carried out a small scale attack using chemical weapons, knowing this would put Obama on the spot for having made his “red line” comments about chemical weapons use. That it was a small-scale use is very important – if it were a large-scale use, the evidence would be overwhelming that the weapons were indeed used, but a small-scale use messes with the “You lied to us” psychology in the US about military intelligence in the Middle East.
More importantly, Hezbollah has suddenly become a big player in this civil War in Syria, most likely, because it thinks it will reap an advantage from the US getting involved. Not that they were uninterested observers before, but if the US can be induced to get involved, you can count on Hezbollah to be the leader of an international rah-rah squad of Great-Satan-haters – and to thus secure popular support for what is likely to be an intensification of their terrorist agenda.
The Israeli government also seems to want US intervention in Syria. Within a few days of having delivered to Obama’s State Department more information about the alleged and small-scale-even-if-true Syrian chemical weapons attacks, it decides to unilaterally strike the Syrians. We’ve seen Benjamin Netanyahu purposefully try to embarrass Obama previously – remember when the Likud government purposefully expanded settlement areas in East Jerusalem just before Joe Biden got off the plane for a state visit? Wonderful timing, huh? Well, think of this as just a larger version of that stunt. Declare you have news that the red line has been crossed and you can prove it, then, when the evidence has been evaluated (and found inconclusive), say you can’t wait any longer and attack yourself. Classic Bibi.
My gut tells me that if the Assad regime and Hezbollah seem anxious to get the Americans directly and unilaterally involved, and the Likud hawks also seem anxious to get the Americans directly and unilaterally involved – the Americans should think twice before getting directly and unilaterally involved.
That being said, I’m not as sure which of the rival alternative options I want to go with.
Staying completely out may still end up working – even with the tacit support of the Russian and Chinese governments, the wholehearted support of the Iranian government, and the strong support of a segment of Syrians who actively fear what a post-rebellion Syria might look like for members of their religious or ethnic groups…the Syrian government still continues to suffer defections from its highest ranking military and Ba’ath party posts. It may be simply a matter of gritting teeth and staying the course. What matters the most, after all, is not making a big show of getting mad about chemical weapons, but doing whatever is necessary to get the government that has those chemical weapons brought down. The rebellion, by itself alone, may be painfully slow, but it may be doing the job.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m convinced that sending military aid to the Syrian rebels means we would unintentionally be arming jihadists. I’m doubtful there are absolutely no methods for ensuring the arms get to the right individuals, and the humanitarian situation in Syria is serious enough, chemical weapons or no, that we should at least be considering this as an option.
The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s might provide an instructive analogy for what’s at stake here…and hopefully one people on the political Left can understand a bit more directly.
Option 1: Stay out of it. The US and its British and French allies stayed out of the Spanish Civil War entirely. No weapons were sent to the Spanish Republic to fight Generalissimo Franco. The downside – Franco’s regime survived for forty more years, and an opportunity to fight the fascist foe we were going to face anyway in the Second World War was missed. However, there was an upside – Franco stayed out of the Second World War (as did the similar regime led by General Salazar in Portugal), and that possibly might have been different if the US and allies had sent military aid to the Spanish Republican troops.
Option 2: Send military aid. The US and its British and French allies did not send military aid to the Spanish Republicans, despite general sympathies with the cause of democracy in Spain, because of a general fear that weapons would fall into the hands of revolutionaries. That was a reasonable fear, as the war against Franco was more or less fought by those who were of a revolutionary bent. However, the USSR sent military aid to the Republicans and managed to make sure that the aid found its way consistently to the most pro-Moscow of the military units. The units that were either “bourgeois” Liberal in orientation or Anarchist/independent Left in orientation didn’t get that aid – and the USSR took advantage of that fact to use the pro-Moscow units to massacre Anarchists and independent Left Republicans. So, ironically, the worry about guns falling into the wrong hands cut in the opposite direction. The US and its allies sent no guns, while the USSR ensured guns did fall into the wrong hands.
I would argue these options are broadly the same now. If we stay out, possibly some good will come of that – though the Spanish experience suggests that the rebels winning might be something that ends up getting sacrificed, even if there are other positive developments perhaps attributable to this choice. On the other hand, if we choose to arm the rebels while staying at a distance from greater involvement, some possible positive consequences of staying out entirely might not materialise, but we might be able to control the “guns falling into the wrong hands” problem more than we think, and keep any threatening rivals (in this case, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah) from gaining some kind of strategic advantage.
My suggestion at this point would be to stick with Option 1 until we have some indication that the Syrian regime is very nearly on the edge of defeat – and then go with Option 2 to push them over. The longer any of this looks like a long-term project of The Great Satan, the more the usual extremists will profit (and the usual naïve Westerners will help them). The more it looks like the Obama administration pitching in just a little bit, and along with the preponderance of other nations of the world, the more likely the operation will admit of success.
But beware those with an interest in unending religious wars in the Middle East. They’re going to continue to hit you over the head about the importance of “red lines”, instead of the importance of sensible strategies for actually defeating Assad. If we ignore the red line and defeat Assad, no one will care. Assad is the reason for the red line.
Keep your eyes on the prize.