As we barrel toward the possibility of yet another shooting war in the Middle East, we seem to have forgotten to have a conversation about whether it’s a good idea. The consensus forming among the mainstream chattering class seems to be that the United States simply must use military force in Syria because of a “red line” – because Barack Obama said that deploying chemical weapons against the Syrian people would not be tolerated — and because someone has to do something, anything, to curb the intolerable bloodshed.
But it’s crucial to understand that everyone also seems to agree that no good outcome from U.S. intervention is possible. There are no “good guys” to aid in this bloody and chaotic civil war; if we are successful and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is toppled, we won’t like the people likely to fill the vacuum. A limited strike, most agree, will accomplish little or nothing. A more intense engagement will result in heavy civilian casualties and possibly American service members coming home in caskets. Escalating and internationalizing the conflict will further destabilize an already unstable region.
The Russians are warning of “extremely dangerous” consequences if Syria is attacked, according to a report in Bloomberg News. The same report cites an analysis by the research firm IHS which concluded that “only sustained military action” has any hope of toppling the regime. Anything short of an all-out war would be a largely symbolic “punitive measure,” according to the researchers.
Last week, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that the Syrian civil war is not between two discrete sides, but rather “a deeply-rooted, long-term conflict among many factions,” none of which would advance American national interests in the region if they prevailed. Armed intervention, he concluded, can “change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying” issues fueling the conflict, and “violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends.”
Middle East scholar Juan Cole notes that “Syria has stockpiles of chemical weapons, the exact position of which is (sic) unknown; indiscriminate bombing raids on Syrian military facilities could release those chemicals on civilian populations.” He adds that much of the regime’s military hardware is housed in major urban centers and couldn’t be targeted from the air without causing massive civilian casualties. “If you want to see a war go bad real quickly,” he writes, “just kill dozens of innocent civilians in their own home from the air.” Finally, he warns that “flooding Syria with medium or heavy weaponry could destabilize it and its neighbors, including Israel and Palestine.”
In the Washington Post, Eliot Cohen, a prominent neoconservative scholar who pushed hard for the 2003 Iraq invasion as a member of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, acknowledges all of the above. “Already it is late, perhaps too late, to prevent Syria from becoming the new Afghanistan or Yemen, home to rabidly anti-Western jihadis,” he writes. But no matter – chemical weapons have been used, and “U.S. prestige is on the line.” He asks: “Why should anyone, anywhere, take Obama’s threats (or for that matter, his promises) seriously if he does nothing here?”
While Obama clearly painted himself into a corner with his talk of a “red line” – Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network, told me she thought the statement was “more aspirational than operational” at the time – the idea that we simply must launch a large-scale military campaign that’s unlikely to end well because of something as nebulous as “credibility” boggles the mind.
Perhaps if we used plain language to discuss these kinds of military actions – contemplating “bombing the Hell out of Syria” rather than using a bloodless euphemism like “intervention” – there might be less zeal for armed conflict among mainstream pundits. That’s a conversation worth having.