Should We Bomb Syria? [With comments by Steve and Paul]

No, I don’t think we should. While the United States has substantial interests in the Middle East, I can’t see that we have a major interest in who rules Syria, as between Assad and the al Qaeda-led rebels. That seems to be the consensus, and I don’t see anyone arguing that we should try to topple Assad. But if we aren’t trying to help the rebels win, then what are we trying to do?

I take it that Paul, for one, thinks that punishing Assad for using chemical weapons is a valid purpose. I am skeptical, for several reasons. First, there are, and have been, many regimes that abuse their people in various ways. Generally speaking, we do not undertake to “punish” them for doing so. While the use of chemical weapons on civilians is evil, it is not clear that it is any more so than the use of machine guns. It seems to me that we should not undertake to punish without a strong, and clearly defined, security interest.

Second, I have no confidence in our ability to calibrate a strike so finely–enough to punish, but not enough to tip the balance of power in the rebels’ favor. It seems highly likely that whatever we do will be either pitifully inadequate, or unduly heavy-handed. As the unfortunate experience of the “Arab Spring” shows, the last thing we want to do is inadvertently bring about an extremist Muslim regime in Syria.

Third, there is a good deal of truth to Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” theory–if we break it, we own it. I don’t see any happy outcome for Syria (or, for that matter, any Arab country) in any foreseeable time frame. Sending a few cruise missiles Assad’s way can’t influence Syrian history in any significantly positive way, but whatever we do, its impact will be exaggerated forever. We will find ourselves being blamed for whatever ills Syria suffers for the next 50 years, no matter how silly such claims may be. And apart from hyperbolic claims, any attack certainly will entail civilian casualties and other undesirable consequences.

It goes without saying that the fact that Barack Obama proclaimed a “red line” and now feels embarrassed about it is not a good reason to intervene.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is stay out of the way. It may be that a year or two ago, we could have played a constructive role by supporting relatively sane elements among the rebels, but those days are gone. We can’t support the rebels now without aiding Islamic extremists. In my view, if we are not prepared to bring about Assad’s demise–and we probably shouldn’t be–the best thing we can do is stand aside. Sometimes history is tragic, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

STEVE adds: I don’t really need to do a separate post with my views, so I’ll add them here.  I line up with John for the most part, both on the merits and because I have zero confidence in the Obama administration to carry out a serious strategy.  The best we’re going to get is a “symbolic” attack that will probably kill some hapless night janitors in some warehouse in Damascus.

The case for a punitive attack because of a crossed red-line on chemical weapons is morally serious, and you could do something that would send a serious message to Assad: destroy his personal palace.  Just to make sure (and since we don’t necessarily want to tip the war to the rebels), we could inform him in advance that we’ve decided he has to sacrifice his personal palace, and that he’d better clear out if he wants to live.  If he installs human shields, we could attack secondary targets in the form of the residences of his top officials.  I’m certain Obama will consider none of these things.

PAUL adds: I agree with John that punishing Assad for using chemical weapons isn’t enough justification for intervention. I agree with Steve that our valid interest in doing so comes close.

But there are two other interests to consider. One is deterring Assad from engaging in further chemical weapons massacres. If we succeed in this objective, we will save lives and prevent suffering. Sure, people will continue to be killed as long as the war persists. But to my knowledge, Assad isn’t randomly killing hundreds of innocent villagers by lining them up and shooting them, and he isn’t likely to do so. He does inflict painful death on hundreds of innocent villagers when he uses chemical weapons.

Because deterrence is uncertain, though, more justification is needed. This I find, albeit not without some hesitation, in our interest in preventing Assad and his sponsors Hezbollah and Iran from winning the civil war. This seems to me the worst outcome possible in Syria, and momentum has swung in favor of Assad.

A rebel victory is far from ideal, and we can’t be sure that our intervention, if it’s meaningful, won’t produce that victory. But I don’t regard a rebel victory, with the concomitant defeat (in effect) of Iran, as unacceptable. Islamist extremists are very influential in the north of Syria, but less so elsewhere. And if we turn the tide decisively against Assad, we can become influential too.

I wouldn’t be shocked if a post-Assad Syria turned out to resemble Libya. As I said, that’s not ideal. But subtract the Benghazi fiasco — a one-off, let’s hope, and preventable — and the outcome in Libya isn’t unacceptable.

Again, it’s the Iranian angle that makes an Assad victory so hard to swallow. Syria can become Iran’s Vietnam, but not if Assad continues his military comeback.

Most likely, though, our intervention wouldn’t bring about a rebel victory, but merely deprive Assad of his momentum and Iran and Hezbollah of their proxy victory. It would also vindicate important international norms and perhaps save lives.

As for being blamed for whatever might prove unsatisfactory following our intervention, we’ve already incurred the enmity of both sides in the civil war — indeed, we had it all along. We’re going to be blamed no matter what; inaction won’t spare us. This prospect shouldn’t deter us from pursuing valid and important purposes.