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).

Syria: How Many Are You Allowed to Kill?

Not us (the US hunting license doesn’t seem to come with a bag limit), I mean the government of Syria, the rebellion against which has resulted in some 93,000 deaths to date (on both govt and rebel sides, although mostly civilians caught in the middle).  John McCain and Bill Clinton are beating the war drums trying to get us all worked up and ready for yet another mid-East war under the unspoken assumption that no country is entitled to kill anyone in order to maintain the status quo. It’s just not permissible to use force to keep a government in power and in control of its whole country. Right? I mean, that’s what made Saddam evil, wasn’t it? He killed people who rebelled against his government, or people who his spies thought looked like they might be thinking about rebelling. How evil is that! I mean, who would dream of killing suspected rebels based only on surveillance data?

So the US is clearly against killing rebels, right? Really? Tell that to honest Abe Lincoln, whose actions to quell the rebellion against the United States cost the lives of 600,000 Americans.  And he didn’t even have any nerve gas.  Everybody seems to think that was just fine. Ancient history? How about some more recent examples. We chased the Taliban and al Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2001 and have been fighting there ever since to keep the new, preferred Afghan government in power. Quashing that rebellion (or, more realistically, trying ineffectually to) has caused the deaths of many 10s of thousands of Afghans (poorly counted).  Another one? We overthrew the government of Iraq in May of 2003 and installed a new one. Every bit of the fighting in Iraq over the decade since then has been to kill rebels trying to defeat the new Iraqi government. Conveniently, nobody’s gotten an accurate count of the number of Iraqis who’ve died as a result, but that (again, poorly counted) figure appears to be in excess of 100,000.

All right, so it really is ok to kill rebels. But then, if it’s fine for 100,000 to die to keep a shitty Iraqi government in power, how is it a casus belli when 93,000 die in the course of keeping a shitty Syrian government in power? Which is it? Killing rebels good? Killing rebels bad?

But Rob, we were killing people in Iraq and Afghanistan to keep Al Qaeda forces from getting control! Oh, that explains it. It’s ok to cause death on a massive scale as long as it’s to keep Al Qaeda and other Muslim fundamentalists from overthrowing a government (after all, we don’t want them in power because they’ll kill people who oppose them). There we go. But hold on. Many of the Syrian rebels are Al Qaeda or Muslim fundamentalists, and now we want to help them. Damn, there goes that theory. This is hard. Wait a minute. I detect a common thread here. Killing rebels is good when we do it, even on flimsy excuses (drone strikes anyone?), and bad when anyone else does it. There you go.

Now Rob, that’s not fair. Sometimes we support rebels and sometimes we support governments. It just depends what’s in our national interest. 

Oh, ok. And our national interest in Syria is what exactly? If it’s not keeping Assad in power, and it’s not letting Muslim fundamentalists gain power, what is it? Haven’t heard that yet. Seems to me, our main national interest should be to not get dragged into yet another mid-eastern snake pit that will drain money, lives, time and effort that we could better apply to problems that affect people here in the USA.