The United States has concluded that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces, and President Obama has authorized direct U.S. military support to the rebels, the White House said Thursday.There is a compelling humanitarian case for some type of measured military intervention in Syria. The brutality of the Assad regime as it clings to power has been well-documented. And the Syrian people are frustrated and angry about the U.S.' lack of military support.
That said, there is a strong argument against intervention, for multiple reasons, including the reasons set forth in this essay in the New York Review of Books by David Bromwich. Bromwich is not someone who I always agree with, but his essay, "Stay Out Of Syria!" is a must-read.
Bromwich argues that there are such disparate elements lined up against Assad, it's becoming increasingly impossible to differentiate between who is a potential friend and ally and those "groups" whose ultimate loyalties lie elsewhere. And as horrific a regime as Assad's is (and there is no doubt about that), the consequences of our meddling in a complicated Middle Eastern sectarian civil war may be counterproductive or worse, because the affiliations of the actors on the ground are so unclear and unpredictable. In fact, up to this point this has been the Administration's position, and it seems that this new policy may be one borne out of political pressure rather than strategic considerations.
Syria has already largely disintegrated. The government and its Alawite and Christian supporters have secured the west, the Kurds are in the northeast, and the Islamist rebels are in the east (where the al-Nusra Front has already begun to enforce sharia law).Some of the Syrian rebels have pledged their loyalty to Al Qaeda:
A Syrian rebel group's pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda's replacement for Osama bin Laden suggests that the terrorist group's influence is not waning and that it may take a greater role in the Western-backed fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.So isn't it possible that our heavy weapons could end up in this group's hands? Here's the Administration's position:
The pledge of allegiance by Syrian Jabhat al Nusra Front chief Abou Mohamad al-Joulani to al-Qaeda leader Sheik Ayman al-Zawahri was coupled with an announcement by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, that it would work with al Nusra as well.
The United States, which supports the overthrow of Assad, designated al Nusra a terrorist entity in December. The Obama administration has said it wants to support only those insurgent groups that are not terrorist organizations.Well that's a relief. Do they make each group fill out a questionnaire?
Bromwich's basic thesis is that there is a lot more going on here beyond the bare fact of Assad's repressive regime, and we would be wise to think twice before entangling ourselves in a civil war that presents in some aspects more complexities than Iraq:
But the untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going. A Financial Times article by Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith on May 17, “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” quoted persons close to the Qatari government who estimate that $3 billion has thus far been spent bankrolling the rebel groups.And on the opposite side?
Against Qatar and Saudi Arabia stand the Shia powers including Iran and its ally Hezbollah, along with numbers of Iraqi Shiites whom the war of 2003 displaced. All these groups support the Alawites—related to Shia Islam. All of them except the Alawites are outsiders to Syria who for religious, cultural, and political reasons do not believe that they are outsiders. The US, by contrast, is seen throughout the region as a perfect outsider.The takeaway here is that this conflict has implications that go well beyond Syria. We would be partaking in another proxy war. In fact, as the New York Times reported yesterday, one of the primary motivators here appears to be the fact that Saudi Arabia and Jordan are piqued that we haven't joined their party:
[T]he president’s caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups.Bromwich also does a good job of shredding knee-jerk proponents of intervention such as the New York Times' Bill Keller and Senator John McCain. His argument has some problems as well, such as over-emphasizing the ambiguity as to who has or has not used chemical weapons. I commend his piece here for everyone to read for themselves.
Moreover, the United Arab Emirates declined to host a meeting of allied defense officials to discuss Syria, concerned that in the absence of strong American leadership the conference might degenerate into bickering and finger-pointing among various gulf nations with different views on the best ways to support the rebellion.
Still, this appears to be a fait accompli:
“The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Rhodes said U.S. intelligence had determined with “high certainty” that Syrian government forces have “used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”As we know President Obama described the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces as a "red line" that could not be crossed.
So depending on your point of view, given the evidence of chemical weapons usage, the Administration is either standing on principle, or, having painted itself into a corner, has now determined it must accede to the hawks clamoring for U.S. involvement.
History suggests that if the motive for military action is unclear, things don't usually end well. History also suggests that arming Middle Eastern factions with unclear loyalties will not end well. The loudest voices calling for intervention are those of perennial GOP scolds like McCain as well as voices within the Democratic Party. But Syria is not "Kosovo" or "Bosnia," and the very fact that people like McCain and other clueless pols are advocating intervention should prompt consideration of any alternative course. As former U.S.Defense Secretary Robert Gates unequivocally stated, military intervention in Syria would be a "mistake" whose outcome will be "unpredictable" and "messy."
The scope of the aid to be provided hasn't been disclosed:
Rhodes did not detail what he called the expanded military support, but it is expected initially to consist of light arms and ammunition. He said the shipments would be “responsive to the needs” expressed by the rebel command.* * *
Obama has “not made any decision” to pursue a military option such as a no-fly zone and has ruled out the deployment of U.S. ground troops, Rhodes said.And down the rabbit hole we go.