David, I’ve been thinking about your post the other day. Not only does it make excellent points, as usual, but it really captures how Iraq is hanging over this debate. There is always a temptation to fight the last war (which you actually fought). And that’s one of the reasons why I think the reaction to this proposed intervention has been disproportionate. We are not talking about invading a country with tens of thousands of troops and occupying it for years. This looks to be more Desert Fox than the second Iraq war. In fact, if Obama hadn’t decided to go to Congress, our barrage might have ended over the Labor Day weekend. That doesn’t mean that we can’t hurt Assad. I suspect if there is a strike, we will be destroying military equipment that he can ill afford to lose. Gassing the suburbs of your own capital city is not exactly a sign of strength.
All that said, things obviously can go wrong. Since Iran and Hezbollah are very invested in seeing Assad prevail and will want to demonstrate strength and deter us from future action, they might hit back. Assad could lash out and dare us to hit us again. And you are absolutely right to warn of rosy assessments of the rebels. John Kerry is already at odds with the intelligence here, as this report noted (interestingly, at one point it quotes a former intelligence official saying, “Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.”).
But let’s consider what is happening right now: Al Qaeda occupies part of Syria, and a government backed by Iran and Hezbollah holds power. Is this really cynical brilliance? One of the problems with “letting them fight it out” is that someone might win. I guess to avoid that we’re effectively rooting for Hezbollah? Does this really make sense?
In my view, it’s a little like saying in the 1980s (and forgive me, I know the analogy is not exact), we don’t like Communists and we don’t particularly like corrupt right-wing authoritarians, so in Nicaragua, let’s just let the two of them fight it out; that will serve our purposes nicely. Instead, of course, we backed the contras. So, I’m with VDH and Bing: We should be attempting to build up elements among the rebels we can trust. Now, maybe the rebel forces won’t cohere, maybe it’s impossible to find anyone worth backing and there are no contras to be had – I don’t discount any of that. But the downside risks of a failed attempt to create our own proxy force don’t seem that high: in that case, we will revert to the status quo of the utter destruction of the country in a fight between a poorly organized resistance shot through with extremists on the one hand and Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah on the other.