Magazine | September 30, 2013, Issue

Only Enemies

It is dangerous and wrong to pick a side in Syria

The images will not leave my mind. A baby, not seven weeks old, shot in the face to “send a message” to villagers supporting the Iraqi government.

A young woman, her eyes fixed straight ahead, as the jihadist blade first cuts into her throat, her gasping, choking last breaths drowned out by shrieks of “Allahu akbar!”

The body parts of children and their parents, strewn across the shattered storefront, mingled with the body parts of the first responders, as a “routine” attack by successive suicide bombers — one targeting civilians, the next targeting rescuers — took its deadly toll.

The tiny blood-spattered shoes of a child, the only human remnants of an entire village massacred for disloyalty.

That’s al-Qaeda, our deadly evil foe, our enemy, so declared by Congress, nearly unanimously. That’s al-Qaeda, my unit’s foe during our long and costly year in Diyala, Iraq, at the height of the Surge. And that’s the same al-Qaeda that stands to reap the considerable rewards of an American strike against the Syrian military and the Assad regime.

Let’s state this clearly: The Obama administration is advocating a war with a nation that did not attack the United States — a war that will render aid to an enemy that not only attacked the United States but also has been in sustained ground combat against American forces for almost a dozen years.

Put more simply: If we strike Syria, we’ll directly aid the worst people in the world. Although diplomatic maneuvers may have sidelined the debate for now, if President Obama later follows through on his threatened military action against the Assad regime, the attack will not just risk a strategic disaster but will also represent a moral disaster, a direct affront to the honor of the United States and its armed forces.

First, the strategic risks: It has long been a goal of al-Qaeda (and other violent Muslim supremacists) to gain a geographic foothold in the heart of the Middle East. If they can obtain that foothold while also potentially overrunning and capturing the chemical-weapons stocks of a collapsing regime, then so much the better.

An al-Qaeda triumph in Syria would represent a first-order security threat for the United States and for Israel. Syria’s reprehensible Assad regime has demonstrated that it will use chemical weapons on its own people, but it has possessed these weapons for a considerable length of time without presenting a single realistic threat of use against the U.S. or against Israel. In other words, Assad has proven he can be deterred.

But would al-Qaeda show such restraint? To date, there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has ever shown any restraint. Indeed, the opposite — it consistently strives toward ever more deadly, ever more vicious acts. It is easy to foresee that Syrian rebels, after first using chemical weapons to help secure their victory over the Assad regime and more-“moderate” rebels, would next direct those weapons at Tel Aviv, or Chicago.

It is this visceral, commonsense understanding that drives much of the opposition to war in Syria. Military action creates two unacceptable risks: Strike too hard and the Assad regime collapses in the face of a jihadist-dominated opposition. Launch a “shot across the bow” — a series of pinprick strikes — and then, perversely, Assad emerges with enhanced prestige while America courts reprisals that could either pull us deeper into war or precipitate a humiliating retreat.

Advocates of action against Syria contest this calculus, insisting that “moderate” rebel factions dominate the opposition and that the risk of jihadist takeover could be minimized so long as we trained and armed friendly rebels. That argument does not square with the facts on the ground, however, or with recent American experience.

Secretary of State Kerry recently testified that jihadists were no more than 25 percent of the Syrian opposition. One can’t help but wonder how the administration defines a “moderate.”

In April, the New York Times reported that “nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” In September, a Reuters report disputed Secretary Kerry’s testimony, stating that, according to U.S. and European intelligence sources, “Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.” With impeccable timing, al-Qaeda even launched a frontal attack (supported by a suicide bombing, of course) on an ancient Christian village in Syria, right in the midst of the war debate in America.

#page#War supporters not in denial about al-Qaeda’s presence and dominance among the rebels hope to mitigate its gains by training allied forces. Those of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan can only respond with a grim chuckle. Training local fighters to independently take on jihadists — without American military support — has been the white whale of American policy since our boots first hit the ground in southwest Asia in the weeks after 9/11.

Even after the expenditure of thousands of precious lives, billions of dollars, and countless hours of embedded leadership, how many of our Iraqi or Afghan allied units are capable of taking on the Taliban or al-Qaeda on anything approaching equal terms? In 2008, the American-trained Iraqi army did win some victories, to be sure, but they were assisted by embedded U.S. Army and Marine teams and supported by American air power. With the American presence removed, even the near-lifeless husk of al-Qaeda in Iraq, though devastated after the Surge, is reviving and flexing its muscles.

And despite this sad record, we believe we’ll have greater success with less American engagement in Syria? No embedded boots on the ground? No close air support? This is sheer fantasy.

Then there is the matter of morality, of honor. No, not the president’s honor or credibility, though some would equate the president’s honor with our own national reputation. The conflict instead raises questions that go to the core of our national identity: Why do we fight? For whom do we fight?

The American soldier is the armed defender of the Constitution of the United States, and all but the most extreme pacifists support the use of our military in self-defense. Thus the overwhelming public majorities in support of our invasion of Afghanistan and the strong initial majority in support of our invasion of Iraq, when faced with an argument that American national security was at stake.

When forces have previously been committed where no national-security interests were apparent, as in Somalia and Haiti, we were at least supporting the weak and vulnerable against tyranny — the starving people of Mogadishu against the warlords, the innocents of Haiti against a brutal military junta.

We do not, however, have a tradition of choosing the vilest side in a civil war and risking American lives and expending American treasure to advance the military interests of pure evil.

None of this is to minimize Assad’s atrocities. He has committed unforgivable sins, he is Iran’s brutal puppet, and he is Israel’s enemy — constrained mainly by his own weakness relative to the IDF. But therein lies the key: He is constrained by his weakness. He has not attacked Israel. He has not attacked the United States. He has provided at least nominal protections to Christians within his borders. By contrast, al-Qaeda is constrained only by death.

With those who argue that defeating Assad will deliver a blow to Iran, I completely agree. But if that blow to Iran elevates al-Qaeda, then we’ve won a pyrrhic victory at best, and have done so while paying a profound moral price.

In Iraq during the Surge, while my brothers-in-arms had varying views of the rightness of the war, we were united in our revulsion toward al-Qaeda and felt a great sense of purpose and vindication as we slowly but surely ground it into dust in our area of operations.

We came home carrying grief for lost friends, and the images we’ll never forget, but comforted that we fought pure evil.

And now, to consider using the same technology, the same professionalism, and endure some of the same sacrifices — to advance the interests of that same enemy?


– Mr. French is a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His opinions are his own.

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