In Syria, it seems, our options range from bad to worse.
Arm and support the rebels? We’d wind up with al-Qaeda affiliates ruling Damascus and even more oppression of the Syrian people.
Do nothing? We’d allow the murderous Assad regime to remain in power and continue as a top client for Iran and Hezbollah.
But recent events may have turned that conventional wisdom on its head.
It’s now a near-certainty that government forces unleashed a chemical attack on their own civilians last week, a “moral obscenity,” per U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, that slayed more than 1,000 Syrians. This heinous assault must be met promptly with a forceful response by the United States and its allies for both humanitarian and strategic reasons.
For too long, the agonizing “Syrian question” — which has divided academics, pundits, area specialists, and even the White House itself — has been mired in either-or thinking along a single, oversimplified axis: Which group should we support?
Unfortunately, there’s no good answer to that question. But Assad’s ghastly gassing of his own people clears the waters a bit for the U.S. and the law-abiding international community.
First and foremost, a forceful response to Damascus’s grisly attack sends a critical humanitarian message: The world will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially on civilians.
The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins reported last week that Assad had carefully been calibrating the amount of toxic gas in each previous attack to inflict damage below a threshold likely to attract international attention. The Syrian strongman tested the American “red line,” and largely crossed it unscathed.
In the latest onslaught, however, Damascus has either abandoned caution or miscalculated, and the horrific carnage has rightly stirred even the most cold-hearted realists.
The slaughter makes it a moral imperative, quite apart from any strategic concerns, for the U.S. to spearhead a retaliatory strike on the missile sites from which the chemical assault emanated, the silos housing the munitions, and the laboratories and factories used to develop them. We should also strongly consider a shot across Assad’s bow: airstrikes on the bases and hideouts housing the upper echelons of his military command.
The Syrian government, and any future would-be WMD deployers, must be made to realize that the civilized world simply will not abide such crimes against humanity.
Second, a limited but forceful response to Assad’s chemical offensive would vindicate the administration’s stated red line and restore its deterrent effect. The U.S. cannot credibly claim to hold a firm foreign-policy position in future conflicts if it cannot enforce the rules it laid down in this one.
Some, such as foreign-policy expert Edward Luttwak, have argued we “should resist the temptation to intervene more forcefully in Syria’s civil war” because, given the wretchedness of both sides, the only good result is a continued stalemate. Yet even if this analysis has merit — and it isn’t without justification — a limited retaliatory strike against discrete Syrian targets would, if anything, help restore balance, including by hampering the regime in attempts to dislodge rebels from ground they hold.
In addition, the only (slim) possibility of a positive long-term outcome in Syria involves liberal and moderate pro-American rebels wresting control of the opposition, and that opposition in turn toppling Assad. A restrained U.S.-led strike on the regime would promote those goals, however marginally.
There are significant costs and risks associated with a military strike. The personnel launching the assault — be they Tomahawk-missile operators or pilots dropping munitions through Syrian airspace — could face a lethal counterattack, and Damascus could well unleash Hezbollah against Israel or Western targets in the Middle East and elsewhere. But these risks pale in comparison to the moral and strategic interests at stake.
“All red lines have been crossed,” Turkey’s foreign minister noted after last week’s attack, “but still the U.N. Security Council has not even been able to take a decision. This is a responsibility for the sides who still set these red lines, and for all of us.” If the feckless U.N. won’t lead, the law-abiding international community, led by the United States, must discharge its moral and strategic obligation accordingly.
— Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego. Reach him at michaelmrosen (at) yahoo.com.