While I sympathize with Rich Lowry’s position reluctantly favoring a strike in Syria — and fully recognize that there are no good options, just a choice between bad and worse — I must disagree. My disagreement centers around this statement:
It’s becoming a conservative trope to say doing nothing would be better than a minimal attack. How would this work in the real world, though? Not only would the president have to eat his words now, he would have to mumble and look at his shoes during what would surely be subsequent and perhaps much worse chemical attacks in the future. Does anyone doubt that Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah would be delighted at our humiliation?
I have two thoughts in response. First, in the Middle East when Israel or the United States launch much-publicized offensives — and the enemy lives to fight another day — it is the enemy who often emerges stronger. Pinprick strikes tend to barely injure our opponents while granting them moral victories. Al-Qaeda, for example, was able to use U.S. cruise missiles as evidence of American weakness, calling more jihadists to the cause. Even aggressive warfare, unless waged to completion, has meant enhanced prestige for our enemies, whether it’s Hezbollah emerging battered but intact in 2006 after Israel’s assault, or Muqtada al-Sadr surviving the initial American attacks in 2004. In Sadr’s case, his forces had to be fought again, in 2008, in the Battle of Basra.
To borrow a saying from HBO’s The Wire, when you come at the king, you best not miss. If we come at the Assad regime with a “shot across the bow,” then we’re almost guaranteed to miss. And that could well grant Assad more prestige than not shooting at all.
The exception to this rule is when the strike is aimed at a discrete objective — such as a nuclear plant, shipment of missiles, or individual leader — and succeeds. Yet there’s no indication that the planned strike would actually remove Assad’s chemical weapons from the field. If we could be reasonably certain that we could destroy Assad’s chemical stocks, then the calculus could change, but I’ve heard no indication that’s a feasible objective.
Second, while doing nothing would inevitably represent a humiliating climb-down, the ascendance of al-Qaeda and other jihadists amongst the rebels has fundamentally changed the strategic equation. Let’s not forget the New York Times report from April:
In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
We have to adapt to the circumstances on the ground. While I understand the desire to create or strengthen an actual allied force, until we can present a better alternative to the Assad regime, we’re risking aiding al-Qaeda — the one entity in the Syrian civil war that we’re actually fighting in a congressionally-declared armed conflict.
One final note: Leaving aside, for the moment, the wisdom of the “red line” comment, the Syrian conflict would be difficult for any president to handle, and in wars where evil fights evil, the range of palatable options for protecting civilians and preventing genocide narrows even more. I do not envy the administration’s challenge, and I pray God grants them wisdom.