Some Unfinished Thoughts on Syria

Since it looks more likely than not that the U.S. is going to attack the Assad regime in Syria, I wanted to write down some of the thoughts that have been on my mind the last few days.

I don’t have any particular reason to doubt that Assad used chemical weapons. We know that he possesses them, and he’s shown himself to be an extraordinarily brutal dictator with no compunctions about bombing and shelling civilian populations as a form of collective punishment. I also don’t think that this decision is comparable to the U.S. invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush. The Bush administration was stocked with warmongering neoconservatives who’d long hungered to invade Iraq as the first stage of their dream of establishing a new American empire; the claims of Saddam Hussein’s possessing WMDs were only ever a thin excuse. I don’t see any comparable motives steering the Obama administration. What’s more, I think it’s fairly obvious what their motives are.

In the early days of the rebellion, I suspect most foreign observers thought – or hoped – that Assad would fall quickly, like the other dictators deposed in the Arab Spring. For President Obama and other Western leaders making that assumption, the warning against chemical weapons had a clear purpose: to make Assad’s exit as quick and bloodless as possible, to discourage him from committing mass murder out of spite if it looked like he was about to be overthrown.

But that wasn’t what happened. The Syrian civil war dragged on long beyond anyone’s expectations, and now, two years later, tens of thousands of people are dead, millions more are homeless refugees, and the fighting has broken down into a bloody quagmire with no end in sight. Major, historic cities like Aleppo have become devastated, bombed-out ruins.

Under these circumstances, what good will a few cruise missiles really do? Even if we assume that all of them hit their intended targets and cause no civilian deaths, it’s hard to see what benefit will come of it. As I said on Twitter:

I can believe that Western military intervention would have served a purpose earlier: to weaken Assad’s military and prevent him from committing genocide against his own people. That’s just what we did in Libya, and while we can’t be sure what would have happened in the possible world where we didn’t intervene there, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that it averted a much worse outcome than would otherwise have occurred.

But to intervene in Syria now? As bleak as it sounds, I think it’s too late. Chemical weapons are horribly indiscriminate, rightly banned by international law, but I don’t see how being killed by sarin gas is worse than being killed by bullets or artillery shells. The outcome that the “red line” warning was intended to prevent – Assad committing genocide against his own people, shattering the country rather than relinquish his grip on it – has already happened, only it was accomplished with conventional weapons. Firing missiles at a few strategic Syrian sites or military bases would be a hollow gesture that wouldn’t change that reality.

The push by Obama and other Western leaders to authorize military action, I’d wager, is happening just for the sake of that earlier promise, pointless though it now is. They made a public commitment, and I imagine the thinking inside the Obama administration is that to back down on it now would only send Assad a message that no one cares what he does, thus loosing any remaining sense of restraint he feels and encouraging him to be even more ruthless and brutal than he now is. And that might even be true.

But at the same time, ordering a military strike will do precisely nothing to bring this war any closer to an end, and if we know that keeping that commitment won’t do any good, I have to wonder what moral value there is in pursuing it to the bitter end. I wish I could say there was another path open to us, but there isn’t. We’ve come to a point where we have nothing but bad options, and whatever we do, Syria and its people will bear the consequences, perhaps for generations to come.

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  • Ryan Jean

    If I may humbly suggest the following article, which may make you reconsider what Assad would actually feel he would gain from the U.S. backing down from an ultimatum:

    “Cross this line… and I’m gonna do nothing!
    (The strange truth about ultimatums)”

    Bottom line: national powers are still typically treated by other national powers as if their threats and ultimatums are *not* simply bluster, even when those threats and ultimatums are repeatedly not followed up on, especially if the national power issuing the threats and ultimatums is actually capable in theory. In other words, the harm to the U.S. of backing down is likely nonexistent, except in the minds of the U.S. policy makers.

  • Secular Atheist

    I agree with you that Obama believes he has no choice but to strike now. I don’t think any president wants to be known as the person who only issues idle threats. I also think that that is his only reason for the attack (if it does, indeed, occur). The point isn’t to topple Assad’s regime at all. It’s simply meant to throw a couple of jabs at him to let him know we he means business and follows through with his threats. As far as intervening any further than that to assist the rebels, I don’t believe that is a whise course of action. We have to allow this war to play out and involve ourselves as little as possible. As a servicemember currently serving in Afghanistan on my third combat tour I can tell you that the military has seen enough war for now, the country as a whole has seen enough of it. To involve ourselves in yet another conflict would further eat away at our resolve.

    - Secular Atheist

  • Shaxos

    I don’t know, considering that using chemical weapons is basically the single course of action which could provoke a reaction from the international community and that Assad has only gained ground during the last year of war, it does look like a very counterproductive move on his side (which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, of course). Are the UN observers still going to report on the situation? It would look more trustworthy than the U.S. “we have proofs but can’t show them” claims.

  • Pattrsn

    Trouble is this following through on threats business assumes that Assad is making rational decisions, or that as a dictator he can afford to look weak in the face of provocation. It may be that if the US follows through on their threats, Assad may feel obliged to step up the attacks.

  • Julien

    The Oatmeal actually has a pretty poignant point to make on Syria:

  • John Alexander Harman

    American air power could probably shift the balance of the Syrian civil war sufficiently to make Assad lose, by crippling his air force and destroying rocket and artillery batteries. However, it’s not at all clear that that would be a desirable outcome, given the nature of the rebels who would be winning the war in that scenario.

  • BrightUmbra

    “I don’t see how being killed by sarin gas is worse than being killed by bullets or artillery shells.”

    I haven’t ever been shot, nor have I come into contact with sarin gas, but given what I’ve heard about both, I’d wager being shot to death is the less painful of the two. If “worse” is measured in terms of suffering, then sarin gas would be worse.

  • Jason Wexler

    Given the results of the Arab Spring in places where the governments were toppled, I would just as soon the US loses face for issuing a stupid ultimatum and not following through. Because the other potentially effective option is conquest and empire.

    Honestly as a politically skeptical person, I am harboring suspicions that this is an attempt to provoke a larger conflict with Russia, at least in or by some quarters.

  • Jason Wexler

    I think it helps to clarify that it is worse for those who survive the attack. Otherwise dead is dead.

  • Bill Miller

    there are some major points to make:
    Assad has chemical weapons at hand, so does the US and several other nations, should these be bombed too?
    The US some years ago have helped Saddam Hussein to kill tens of thousands iranians and kurdish civilians. Don’t you see this a double standard?
    The international law is quite clear that military acts without approval by the UN SC are aggressive acts and should be punished. The US as holy triune of legislative/judiciary/executive?
    You may say the outcome of a military strike is worth it. In this case methinks you should look at some other countries that have been “freed” recently. Are these heading towards earthly paradise?
    The only ones that have been caught transporting sarin are the “rebels”. Without sufficient safety measures through turkish towns endangering thousands.
    Syria has been crosshaired since years by groups that finance islamistic terrorism worldwide. Should the US indirectly support them? The same people that used tanks to crush uprisings in their own countries?
    Major contributing reasons for the uprising in Syria are austerity measures advised by the IMF that pushed many into abject poverty. Furthermore the influx of thousands of shiit refugees from the Iraq after “Mission accomplished”.

    The Austerity measures were implemented following the “Washington Consensus”. Austerity measures the US does not dare to pose upon their own population instead printing money like crazy.
    So I’d say please continue thinking…

  • ZenDruid

    I reckon the easiest thing to do is expand the area of operations for the Predator drones. It looks like Assad has dispersed his C&C structure to schools and hospitals, so traditional Desert Storm-type air attacks would be the worst option.

  • HA2

    There is, in fact, reason to doubt that Assad was behind the chemical weapon attacks. The case is by no means proven, just like the Iraqi WMDs a decade back.

  • anon 101

    The problem is that by now half of the fighting oppostion against Assad are radical islamists and jihadists. We really cannot be interested in them winning the war.

  • Figs

    Could limited, “surgical” strikes over the course of just 60 days do this? And as you mention in your follow-up, would we even want to do this? It looks like the rationale for strikes is purely “punitive,” but not intended to change the course of the civil war in a major way. In which case, the strikes will likely hurt innocent Syrians but not do much more for their lives.

  • David Simon

    Hells no, we need to ease way back on this kind of nonsense. The world could use a great international police force, but the US is not that force. We haven’t got the credibility, the technique, or frankly the resources to do it well. Our track record speaks for itself.

    Maybe when another Darfur comes along, we might be helpful on the ground at the moment of emergency to help keep the peace. But missile strikes and proxy bullshit with Russia are no such mission.

  • Frank Key

    There is so much propaganda being disseminated to the public, it is absolutely impossible for any of us to know what actually happened and who did it. In the build up for a military operation, all leaders say what they need to say to get the public opinion on their side – the truth becomes irrelevant.
    Obama is making a grandiose leap of faith that he knows beyond all reasonable doubt exactly what happened and is taking a no-holds barred approach to getting us to go along with him. It’s all propaganda and I am not persuaded by any of it.

  • BrightUmbra

    According to Wikipedia, “Initial symptoms following exposure to sarin are a runny nose, tightness in the chest and constriction of the pupils. Soon after, the victim has difficulty breathing and experiences nausea and drooling. As the victim continues to lose control of bodily functions, the victim vomits, defecates and urinates. This phase is followed by twitching and jerking. Ultimately, the victim becomes comatose and suffocates in a series of convulsive spasms.”

    I only have my imagination to go on, since as I said I’ve never been exposed to this substance (nor have I ever had a comparable experience), but this seems far more horrific and agonizing than the effects of fatal gunshot wounds.

    Yes, dead is dead, and of course once a person is dead the suffering ends; but the fact that they suffered horrifically doesn’t become void at the time of death. That person went through a terrifying and agonizing experience; that they didn’t survive is irrelevant in this equation. This is what I feel makes being killed by sarin gas worse than being killed by bullets or artillery shells.