Syria is a mess. Let’s not make it worse.
I am no expert on the Middle East, but you do not need to be one to know that there are no “good guys” waiting to take power in Syria. Just ask anyone in this or the last administration for names of the alternative government that has any public support in Syria.
The present government is very bad, but as Libya demonstrates every day, getting rid of a very bad government with nobody better waiting to take power often makes things worse. Particularly for Syrian religious minorities, the options other than the present regime are all worse.
At this point any “punishment” we deal out for the horrific use of chemical weapons will have already been factored into the calculus for using them.* Meanwhile, less publicized atrocities are committed by all the players in Syria on a daily basis. The entire situation is sickening and a reminder that almost any stable government is preferable to chaos and civil war.
Unless willing to provoke the Russians, we can no longer play the dominant role in charting Syria’s future.
The Obama administration allowed the Russian government a major role in Syria. Perhaps this could not be avoided, but Russia is there now and will stay. Our NATO ally, the Turkish regime, is in Syria for reasons of her own domestic politics and fears of a Kurdish state and shows no sign of leaving.
The use of chemical weapons on civilians is horrible. We can and should condemn it, but the time to draw a “red line” passed in the last administration. Syria is now too complicated even to know what group would be helped by our actions.
What do we hope to accomplish by “doing something” in Syria?
The United States was unable to create a stable, democratic regime in Iraq despite the commitment of billions of dollars and thousands of troops over many years and two administrations. We have troops there still. What good can be done in Syria with airstrikes and arming the ever shifting opposition groups? I have spoken to people who report to me that they have seen American weapons that have ended up in the hands of terrorist groups.If we have no alternative national government, what is our end goal? How could we achieve that goal? Will killing some Syrians (or Iranians or Russians) accomplish anything if we are unsure what we wish to do?
When I talk to my Syrian or Lebanese acquaintances, they generally wish nothing more than for everyone to leave them alone. Russia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and the United States all have been playing power politics in Syria. Like Lebanon, Syria seems unlikely to gain control of her borders soon, war continues.
There is no American interest in doing anything in Syria other than providing humanitarian aid to the suffering people of the region. Whatever we do, things are unlikely to get better and there is no obvious plan for a new Syrian government post-Assad. Christian just war theory demands that our use of force be in the service of some end better than a peaceful response would produce.
What would a limited strike accomplish? What is the end game that would be better than doing nothing? How does such an action meet just war criteria?
The United States should condemn the use of chemical weapons, step up humanitarian aid to the people of Syria, and stay out of the fight. Perhaps if Syria sees the American people providing food, shelter, and education, we will build good will and help produce better Syrian options to the present players.
*I am assuming that the claim that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons is true. However, our experience with intelligence in the Middle East has not been such as to fill anyone with trust. There were, after all, no WMD in Iraq.