Tuesday September 10, 2013
If the arguments being presented by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for attacking Syria seem increasingly shrill and disjointed that might well be because a legitimate case cannot be made for going to war. The central argument—i.e., that punishing al-Assad will “change his calculus” and dissuade him from using chemical weapons against rebel forces embedded within the civilian population—relies on demonstrating that al-Assad has already done just that, a case that has not been credibly made thus far. Nor would a “shot across the bow” strike be likely to influence the thinking of a regime that theoretically might find itself with its back against the wall, willing to use all resources at hand to defeat a ruthless enemy. Still less does the argument that Washington must act lest the chemical weapons fall into the hands of terrorists and be used against American and other Western targets convince. Such a scenario is much more likely if the rebels, who undeniably include many extremists, are empowered through military action to such an extent that they might eventually triumph. If Washington wishes to prevent possible weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists, it should be doing everything it can to support the Syrian government. Any scenario that involves attacking the very soldiers who are presumably guarding the chemical weapons is a recipe for disaster.
As has often been the case in other situations over the past 12 years, Washington has maneuvered itself into a new crisis because it is failing to see the Syrian situation in all its complexity, preferring simple solutions that do not involve any commitment or long-term strategic planning. One former intelligence colleague has called it “a very poorly defined problem” that will not be solved by lobbing a few Tomahawk cruise missiles towards Damascus. That is the issue precisely—failing to understand what the problem is frustrates any attempt to devise a reasonable solution.