The Ruse in Syria

Well, if the dodgers and duckers in Congress are going to take a position on Syria, then I guess I should as well. Here goes. Basically, I think the chemical weapons issue is really just an excuse to mobilize public (and Congressional) opinion behind a regime change operation—or I should say, an attempt at regime change. I think this is highly likely to end poorly for the US and rather likely to end poorly for most Syrians. Thus I am opposed to both what is apparently being proposed (limited air strikes aimed at degrading Assad’s chemical capability and deterring him from using them) as well as the hidden agenda that I think is actually being planned (unlimited attacks plus whatever aid and assistance to the rebels it takes to bring down the regime—essentially Libya v2). Here’s what’s wrong.
Chemicals a ruse: I’m as reluctant as anyone to underestimate the stupidity of politicians but the alleged rationale goes far beyond the borders of even American political logic and reason. Kerry and Obama have specifically stated that our only goal is to stop the Syrian government from using chemical weapons again. That’s the only casus belli; we’re not intervening to stop civil war and civilian massacres (then we would have to explain why we haven’t intervened in even bloodier wars in Africa), we’re not trying to bring democracy to yet another Muslim country. No, we’re just enforcing the international ban on use of chemical weapons. That’s all folks!
This is nonsensical because by our own arguments, we would therefore have to consider it “mission accomplished” if Assad used no more chemical weapons but accelerated his pace of shooting, shelling and bombing his people. Our “logic” is such that 10,000 dead by conventional means but no chemical casualties is more of a “win” than 1,000 dead by nerve gas. Really? That’s a preposterous ethical judgment. Not even US politicians could believe that—and I don’t think they do. Is this just verbal quibbling? No, assuming for a minute that we do “persuade” Assad to stop using chemicals, is he just going to give up and move into exile? I suppose that’s a theoretical possibility, but I think it’s much more likely that he’ll accelerate his conventional attacks in order to crush the rebellion quickly before we decide to intervene further. More deaths will ensue. I suspect that this likelihood is planned for by the White House, perhaps even counted on. Once Assad escalates his butchery, it will be easier to sell the public on the case for more direct action. That’s the only reason I can see that we would maintain the otherwise irrational prioritization that dying in agony in the street from a bullet through your abdomen or being burned alive trapped in the ruins of your bombed house is so much more acceptable than being killed by nerve gas.
Why it’s likely to end poorly for us: I know we’d all like to see the Syrian butchery stop, and if Harry Potter showed up with his magic wand, we would all insist he wave it. However, there’s no magic wand; there’s only military force, and before we pull out the sword (or before we do anything, really), we’re obliged by the standards of rationality to weigh the risks/costs vs the benefits.
Now, Kerry and all the spokespeople have tried to do an end-run around the need to make this assessment by saying, “The worst that can happen if we fail to act is that things continue as they are.” Really? You’re telling us this is a military attack with no downside? Only good things could come of this? The risk is zero, so it’s all benefits? That’s the same failure of anticipation that got us into trouble in Iraq. Even though I don’t think Kerry and Co. actually believe this, no one on the shows where they made these claims (all this past weekend) or in commentary afterwards challenged this absurdity, so let me help them by listing a few of the possible downsides of our (ostensibly limited) bombing of Syria:
• Increased killing of civilians by conventional means (by Assad as per above, plus whatever ones we kill ourselves)
• Increased Muslim anger due to yet another US military intervention in yet another Muslim country leading to further East-West polarization, more Muslim radicalization and more terror attacks on the US
• Increased likelihood of equally direct intervention by Assad’s supporters, Iran and Russia, escalating the conflict from an internal Syrian one to a regional if not international one
• And if greater intervention does manage to drive Assad out, the subsequent regime is likely to be equally repressive and non-democratic but more Muslim extremist (and likely to commit atrocities on government supporters, particularly the Alawites)
Possible upsides?
• The attacks somehow convince Assad to negotiate with the rebels who, despite all current appearances, somehow unite into a coherent bargaining force that can find enough common cause with each other and their opponents to participate in forming a stable government
• The US looks like a champ for bringing an end to a war that no one seems happy with (including the participants)
I think the downsides are highly undesirable and the upsides are highly desirable, but I find the downsides much more likely than the upsides, and thus I come down against unilateral US attacks on Syrian installations (if you want to talk about things that the world could do as a united front to help solve the problem, that’s a different issue from what is now being proposed by the White House and a matter for another essay).

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