Secretary of State John Kerry gave an impassioned rationale for attacking Syria. He tried to build the case for the absolute moral imperative to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people and to prevent him from doing it again.
Kerry detailed the horror of the act for the listening world. Then he promised that U.S. military actions, with or without the support of allies, would be different from Iraq and Afghanistan, because it would not require “boots on the ground.” In other words, we’re going to do a little bombing, then leave Syria to continue its dance of death.
While I join Secretary Kerry and every other ethical and sane human being alive in condemning the Syrian government for using this weapon of mass destruction, I do not share his thirst for military action.
Kerry can list many reasons to bomb Syria, including the fact al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, the fact that we warned him not to do it (another version of the “let’s kill thousands to save face” strategy) and the assumption that failure to act will embolden al-Assad and other U.S. bêtes noire like Iran and North Korea to go farther.
I can think of only one reason not to use force against al-Assad, but it trumps all of Kerry’s rationales: it will likely backfire and plunge Syria into an intensified cycle of violence between a weakened Ba’athist government and a splintered opposition that includes forces that truly despise the United States.
If you need to remind yourself what will happen in Syria, read the article titled “Bloodier than Ever” in the latest Economist. I’ll state my case by excerpting the first paragraph:
”…the scale and scope of recent attacks have shaken even the most hardened Iraqis. More than 500 have been killed in bombings this month, after some 1,000 perished violently in July—the highest number since civil strife tailed off five years ago. Yet these figures, tallied by Iraq Body Count, an independent web-based monitoring organisation, are only the most visible cause for alarm. Car-bombings and suicide-bombers have been a fact of life in central and northern Iraq for most of the past decade, but recent attacks reveal a level of co-ordination not seen for several years.”
In other words, the civil war not only continues in Iraq, but is intensifying again. Later in the article, we find out that al-Qaeda launched an attack on prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji last month, enabling 500 prisoners to escape. Still later, we learn that the violence is spreading to the south of Iraq, formerly one of the most peaceful parts of the country.
What a mess! And the Syrian mess will be just as bloody and violent and last just as long if we bomb Syria.
Let’s face it. With or without a violent U.S. response, the Syrian people are going to go through a lot of suffering over the coming years, certainly if al-Assad prevails and certainly during a continued civil war. It’s likely that the overthrow of the Syrian Ba’athists will produce a permanently fractured state like Iraq instead of the one strong (and hopefully pro-western) government for which we might all hope. It’s also possible that Syria may end up with another blood-thirsty strong man.
Maybe the Obama administration cynically figures that since things are going to be a mess in Syria anyhow, we might as well send a message to Iran and Russia and work off some of our excess weaponry, so we can buy some more from American arms manufacturers. That Real Politik strategy would certainly be more consistent with the last 75 years of American foreign policy than the moral imperatives that Kerry evokes. That Kerry was careful to tiptoe around international law lends proof to this supposition, as the United States doesn’t want to box itself into holding any other entity above its own sense of imperial entitlement, not even international law.
Thinking about the suffering of the 1,500 people who died of chemical poisoning makes me physically ill. It was a repulsive act that deserves to be met with world condemnation, economic boycott, increased support of those rebels willing to commit to a western-style democracy and a temporary rapprochement with Iran—anything we can do to destabilize the Ba’athists in Syria short of military action.