The Syrian Gamble

You know what’s wrong with all the talk, the incessant and cocksure talk, about attacking Syria? Everything. At least everything that matters.

Sure, it would temporarily feel good if America were to strike a blow against a despotic and desperate regime that has killed thousands of its own citizens, including women and children.

Sure, it would be justified, at least morally, to demonstrate to other brutal tyrants around the world that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated.

Sure, we could do great damage to Bashar al-Assad by way of some tactical attacks against his military assets, possibly even tipping the balance in favor of the disparate Syrian opposition, some of whom, if they topple the government, we will undoubtedly hear from again, since they are our ideological and theological enemies.

Before the pundits and politicians talk decisively about involving the U.S. in the Syrian mess, what we should be talking about is why would Assad do such a thing now and why would he do it where he allegedly ordered it? As Syrian Kurdish leader Salen Muslim said,

The regime in Syria … has chemical weapons, but they wouldn’t use them around Damascus, 5 km from the (U.N.) committee which is investigating chemical weapons. Of course they are not so stupid as to do so.

It is possible of course that Syrian leadership is that stupid. But shouldn’t we be absolutely certain first? After the Iraq war’s weapons-of-mass-destruction mass delusion, shouldn’t we be sure?

And before launching missiles and dropping bombs and satisfying the war-thirst of John McCain, we should be talking about the “additional information” related to the chemical attack that Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would provide “in the days ahead.” That was on August 23. So far, all I’ve heard that would directly—as opposed to circumstantially—tie the Syrian government to the chemical attack is a report of intercepted calls by U.S. intelligence gatherers, as Foreign Policy’s The Cable reported:

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. 

The trouble is, as that report makes clear, such an intercept raises additional questions about who is to blame for such a brutal move:

Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?” 

I, for one, want to know the answer to those questions before I assent to a retaliatory attack against Syria. And apparently there is a report being compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that will give us probative evidence that Assad is responsible for the horrific chemical attack. While that is a necessary component of justifying a move against Syria, it is not sufficient.

The Washington Post reports:

U.S. officials have said that any strike would be limited in scope and duration and would be intended as both punishment for the use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent. 

It’s one thing to imagine that this action can be “limited in scope and duration.” But before a final justification for the action can be made, the government must address the logical follow-up question: After the last cruise missile has exploded, after the last bomb has dropped, what then? I don’t demand some kind of overarching strategy for the entire region, as Senator McCain and others have demanded and demeaned the President for not having. There is no such strategy applicable to what is going on in that part of the world. Every situation is different and does not lend itself to some sort of grand plan.

However, in terms of Syria, in terms of using military intervention against Assad, whether on our own or, more acceptably, in conjunction with other nations, it should at least be explained to Americans that the next step is inherently unknown, dependent on what Syria or Iran or Hezbollah or others do in reaction to our direct intervention. The intention of a military strike may be conceived as punishment and it may be conceived as limited in scope and duration, but it should be explained to Americans that what happens after we do damage to Syria is a gamble. Escalation may follow. More American involvement may become necessary. And no one, right now at this moment, knows how extensive that involvement may be.

As I write this, President Obama is under intense pressure to make good on his word that the use of chemical warfare is a line that cannot be crossed with impunity. He has to do something, it is argued by folks on both ideological sides, in order to protect the integrity of the United States, otherwise our threats in the future will be meaningless. We will look like international weaklings. And it appears increasingly obvious that the President will act. He will do something.

I remember the criticisms of President Obama related to the escalation of the Afghanistan war. Do you remember? He was accused of “dithering,” of indecision. Our local paper, the Joplin Globe, editorialized at the time:

The choice is now yours, Mr. President. Put up or back down. There is no room for equivocation.

At that time, almost four years ago, I wrote about those who were itching for an upgrade of the Afghanistan war:

Those who favor escalating the war should “put up or back down” when it comes to defining exactly how we will know when we have won the war. If they can’t do that, then maybe they need to take some more time and think about it.

Johnson

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson expressed frustration to Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time, about what to do in Vietnam. He knew the effort was not likely to succeed, yet, Johnson could not marshal the courage to pull the plug on the action. It would have been too “costly,” in his mind, both domestically and internationally.

So, 55,000 more lives were lost. That’s right. After President Johnson knew the war was essentially useless, 55,000 more lives were needlessly lost.

Maybe a little more deliberation and a little more courage to “back down” would have led Johnson to do the right thing. We will never know. But we do know that President Obama is rethinking his initial plans to continue prosecuting the war. That is a good thing. And it is not equivocation or dithering to want to get things right.

Again, I ask those who can’t think of anything else to do in this present situation but to attack Syria to please tell us how this thing will end if it doesn’t turn out to be limited in scope and duration. What should our response be if the situation spreads outside of Syria? How far are we willing to go?

I can be persuaded. I share the outrage of what happened to civilians, to women and to children, outside of Damascus. I am not in favor of doing nothing about what is going on in Syria, particularly if a desperate regime has now decided to do the unthinkable. But to justify American involvement, a better case has to be made than has been made so far.

And I can only hope and believe that President Obama, should he do what it appears he will do, has considered the next step, and the next, and the next. I hope that he consults with Congress, which in this particular case, should shoulder much of the responsibility for attacking Syria. This isn’t Libya. The unknowns are much greater and more extensive.

Finally, if we do act, it should not be because we have a compulsion to save political face both domestically and internationally. We know from recent history that such a compulsion eventually cost the lives of 55,000 Americans.

13 Comments

  1. Wells said. I have nothing to add.

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  2. ansonburlingame

     /  August 29, 2013

    Let Syrians decide what happens in Syria and keep that conflict contained to just within Syria. That has been my position and remains so today in regards to Syria.

    But Duane and others, there is a very serious issue underlying all that talk right now about just Syria.

    For 60 years American policy related to WMD has been deterrence to prevent their use, anywhere, anytime.

    Deterrence, in Iraq in the 1980s and now in Syria today FAILED in regards to chemical weapons.

    So when deterrence fails, what next?

    Someday deterrence against nuclear weapons will fail as well. Maybe it will keep a full up nuclear war from happening but what about the inevitable “suit case bomb”?

    WHEN, not if, that happens, somewhere, well what next for American policy considerations?

    Anson

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  3. I do have one more thing to add. For those who can’t believe that the anti-Assad revolutionaries would purposely gas their own people, I just want to mention that one of the major players among the anti-Assad forces is Al Qaeda, known for at least one other horrific act, if y’all remember.

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  4. ansonburlingame

     /  August 30, 2013

    Adding more, with no endorsement, whatsoever of the link offered. Here it is http://jhaines6.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/shocking-story-that-could-derail-attack-on-syria/

    For those not wanting to read the link, it is an admission by “Syrian Rebels” that THEY launched the recent use of chemical weapons and received such weapons from Saudi Arabia.

    True or not, I have no idea. But this story should be run to ground by American intelligence, completely and thoroughly and we the people must know the results.

    Right now all we are being told, publicly, is that “intelligence sources” leave little if any room to doubt that some part of Assad’s government launched the attack. I am sure some highly classified MEANS of getting such intelligence, “suggest” such things. I also fully appreciate that we cannot disclose the details of such means and methods or people giving us that information.

    For sure this particular link, true or false, does not cause me to change my overall view that we must let Syrians decide what is best for Syrians. As long as the conflict remains in Syria alone, well we may not like the manner in which they are making sausage or the ultimate product of sausage produced. But, folks, it ain’t OUR sausage, either.

    But IF a single one of those weapons crosses an international border, well I for one would call for a MASSIVE production of LOTS of B-2 Stealth Bombers to MAKE deterrence work, internationally. We will never be able to build enough cruise missiles to achieve that goal, for sure.

    Anson

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    • Anson,

      Your link is to a rabidly wild conspiracy nut’s website. Alex Jones makes Glenn Beck look sane. In any case, if you muddle through and follow the story, it was not an AP story at all, even though Dale Gavlak does work for the AP. The story was also not directly reported by Gavlak, but by another reporter working for something called Mint Press News, which appears to have a libertarian agenda. Besides American Obama-haters, the story is also being promoted by, uh, Russia. Most notably, the story has not been picked up by the AP or any major news organization, which should tell you something.

      I really fail to understand how you can have lived this long, experienced what you have, been trained as you have professionally, and still not be able to properly evaluate what comes to you via email, which, I’m guessing, came from one of your ex-military buddies.

      Amazing.

      Duane

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  5. King Beauregard

     /  August 30, 2013

    I have a crazy thought on this, or at least it sounds crazy: if Obama is talking tough and unreasonable, there must be secret negotiation going on behind the scenes. It just seems very unlike Obama to “go rogue” (har har) on foreign policy like this, so I infer there is a side of this we’re not hearing about.

    With that in mind, my guess is, we’re not going to do anything foolish, as much as it appears now we might. Here’s hoping.

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    • Now we have the President going “rogue” on constitutional democracy! He actually, it turns out, believes in it, or he is the most cynical president we’ve had since Nixon.

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      • King Beauregard

         /  September 1, 2013

        This has been a weird event in politics all right, and in a couple years perhaps we’ll learn what the hell really happened.

        I don’t believe Obama said “yee-haw, another chance to start a bombing campaign!” like the toilet-dwellers at HuffPo all think, only to balk when he finally noticed that public sentiment was against him. Obama may be many things, but “obtuse” is not one of them. And after the big “debates” on Libya and drones, I can see Obama wanting to put the challenges back in Congress’s hands; the Constitutional Scholar can’t be completely unaware that declaring war is Congress’s job. But the Community Organizer in him can’t have wanted to accomplish that via a big switcheroo; far more likely he would have announced from the beginning that his administration would lead the way on fact-finding and he would expect Congress to put it to a vote.

        So there’s something else going on here, and I don’t know what it is. Maybe Obama figured that Congress wasn’t going to put it to a vote, and he can’t act unilaterally, so all he can do is bluster Assad into compliance while offering some sort of backdoor deal we don’t yet know about. In other words, a game of “good global policeman / bad global policeman”. And if Obama is now asking for Congress’s vote, that suggests the backdoor negotiations are moving along nicely.

        I don’t like trying to interpret shadow-puppets, but the straightforward interpretation of events isn’t working.

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        • King B,

          I haven’t checked in on HuffPo or the whole leftish response on the Internet yet. I have spent the morning surveying all of the usual shows, bewildered by what I am seeing and hearing.

          But as for what happened, I have my own theory, which isn’t all that sexy or intriguing. We have a very unusual president in the White House. He seems to put the integrity and well-being of the country, particularly as a moral leader in a confused and confusing world of disparate nations, above any considerations of his personal aggrandizement or diminution. I know, I know. That sounds weird, considering you have to have a massive ego to even run for the job of president. But I think he took the risk of looking weak and indecisive, thus playing into the right-wing narrative about him, because he saw something larger than his ego and presidential machismo at stake.

          I genuinely think he simply kept thinking about this matter and at the last minute, even after he sent out John Kerry previously to make a strong moral case and essentially signal we were gonna attack Syria, he changed his mind. He changed his mind. And more than that, he had the courage to do so. I believe he really does believe that this should not just be a unilateral move by one man in the Oval Office. I think he came to the conclusion that he needed the force of the people of the United States, expressed through an affirmative vote in Congress, behind him on this matter. We, whether we like it or not, are the world’s policeman, when it comes to international law. There would be no international law if it weren’t for the United States. It is a fantasy to think that international laws or norms mean a goddamn thing without the American military, which unlike any other country in the world, can project its power anywhere on the planet.

          Thus, the President figured it is worth a gamble of a no vote in Congress. We need to decide what kind of values we want to represent and what kind of values we are prepared to defend, in this world and at this time. His administration will do its best to convince us all that we should stand for more than simply defending our oil and economic interests abroad, that people around the world need to know that there is a moral component in our foreign policy decisions that at least helps to guide us in our interactions with them, even if that moral component is rarely decisive.

          Duane

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  6. ansonburlingame

     /  September 2, 2013

    I limit my response in this string to just the link offered. Shoot the message all you like but leave the messenger alone, please. Yes, I did receive the link from a classmate, a retired military officer, a college graduate and one somewhat experienced in military matters. I offered it for consideration, not advocation.

    I submit we yet know if chemicals were purposely released on a civilian population by Assad himself or even high levels of the Assad government. A “rogue commander” could have done so, or a “warehouse” holding such weapons could have mistakenly been hit by conventional artilery. Such must be at least considered and discounted as likely before going to “war” in Syria, against “somebody”.

    A further explanation will be offered in Duane’s latest blog, which I have yet to read.

    Anson

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