Attacking Syria: Facing the Inevitable

Until now, Western military action against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad has been averted for any number of reasons, most of them (like the odious objections of the Russians) watery rationalizations in the face of the escalating carnage.

Is the United States finally considering the use of military force?

According to a story yesterday in The Hill, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) hinted that the Obama administration is getting closer to taking military action. Lieberman, according to The Hill, said on May 19: “I think [the Obama administration is] moving toward some more real action. Every day that passes more people get killed. It’s our moral obligation to help them.”

The liberating feeling of advocating the right thing

He’s joined with Sen. John McCain of Arizona on this issue. Lieberman, according to the riveting book, Game Change, was McCain’s almost-running mate in 2008, and both men see interventions much the same way. Both both are pressing for action against the barbarism of “President” Assad.

(And by the way: when did every petty dictator in the world start using the term “president?” It’s almost enough to make you miss the grandiose inventiveness of Idi Amin. Almost.)

The use of force against the Syrian regime is neither a good or bad policy: it’s an inevitable outcome, unless Assad either steps down, or is toppled from within — which seems now to have virtually no chance of happening. More people are going to die, no matter what happens.

"Think anyone's gonna try and kill us, Moammar?" "Nah, we're good; look at me, I've been in power, like, forever."

Assad, like the late Moammar Qaddafi before him, has made it clear from his actions that he’s willing to kill just about every single person in Syria rather than relinquish power. The war in Syria over the past nine months has taken at least 9,000 lives  — or so the United Nations estimated in March, when it gave up trying to keep count.  The U.S. says more than 10,000 have died, while the Syrian rebels say 11,000.

The reason I’m using the word “inevitable” has to do with the West, not Syria. I’m not a Middle East expert, but I think I know something about U.S. foreign policy, and Assad’s actions have now raised the stakes to intolerable levels both for Washington and the larger Western world.

Assad has forced the West’s hand: if the U.S. and NATO do not act, then everything they’ve done since the Kosovo war in 1999, up through the campaign against Qaddafi in 2011 will be undermined by Assad’s gamble that the West only engages in humanitarian intervention in perfect circumstances, and that toughing it out, no matter how much blood is spilled, is the card to play against Washington and NATO when things get grim.

In the short term, even if Assad wins and holds on, he loses. There is no outcome now where he can put down the Syrian revolution with this much blood on his hands and emerge the internationally acknowledged head of state of Syria.

If The Hill’s report is accurate, however, the Lieberman-McCain position is starting to get traction, because “the sense that time is starting to run out has begun to resonate in the halls of the White House and The Pentagon.”

The fact of the matter is that time ran out months ago, but the pressure building in the administration makes sense, since the 2011 Libyan operation showed that there’s an “interventionist” wing of the Obama administration, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, presidential advisor Samantha Power, and perhaps even Secretary Hillary Clinton herself.

© The Daily Beast

Clinton and Rice confer during the Libyan crisis

Add to that Clinton’s former top advisor at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who publicly laid out some conditions for an intervention and pointedly noted that if we’re not going to intervene, we’d better get on the stick and fulfill our moral responsibility to tell the Syrian rebels that we’re not coming. (And that was back in January.)

But intervention, especially multiple interventions with an election looming, is a tough political sell until all the usual “peacemakers” and “special envoys” have had their turn at bat.

So in conclusion, we...whoa, stop fighting while I'm mediating. Didn't you hear me? Hey! I'm not joking -- this is my *job*

Kofi Annan’s plan to broker a cease-fire, such that it was, is now in tatters. No one really expected it to work, but one of the new rules of international diplomacy in the 21st century is that some number of human lives have to be sacrificed during a kind of decent interval in which ineffective mediators can make a show of pleading with dictators to stop doing what dictators do.

Finally, after a brutal sweep by Syrian government forces through Aleppo University earlier this month, White House spokesman Jay Carney said:

“If the [Syrian] regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat and work to address the serious threat to peace and stability being perpetrated by the Assad regime” via the U.N. Security Council or the ad-hoc “Friends of Syria” group of countries.

When the major powers start talking about “threats to peace and stability,” that’s the sign that we’re heading into the U.N. Charter’s Chapter VII territory: “Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.”

Another triumph for the diplomacy of two enlightened democracies.

Mind you, there should be no expectation that the Security Council will act on anything related to Chapter VII; the Council, after all, was created to stop conflicts, not to participate in them.

But when that Chapter VII talk starts to emerge, it’s usually a pretty reliable marker that the U.S. and other major powers are about to treat an issue as a matter for international resolution, and perhaps even through the use of force, rather than as a domestic or internal matter in another country.

Whatever the Security Council’s other problems, the Council itself is largely irrelevant because the Russians will veto anything remotely approaching a solution that includes an attack on Assad’s regime. The Russians and the Syrians have a longstanding relationship that goes back to the Soviet days; the old men in the Politburo were big fans of Assad’s father Hafez, a mass-murderer whose destruction of an entire town to quell a rebellion in 1982 makes little Bashir look like a piker by comparison.

No, seriously, I love this Bashir cat. Not enough to give him asylum or anything, but, you know, I like the way he swings, so you NATO bozos lay off him or it's ring-a-ding-ding, baby.

Moscow has made a great show of supporting Syria, even if (like their support of Iran) it’s been with smiles through clenched teeth. The reality, of course, is that Vladimir Putin doesn’t give a rat’s ass about is not invested in Assad per se; rather, he knows an anti-authoritarian uprising when he sees one.

The expressions of protest that have shaken governments from Ukraine to the Middle East have not only irritated Putin for the past few years, but worse (from his point of view) they’ve emboldened his own citizens to give him the collective finger in marches in Moscow and other Russian cities during his own pirouettes in and out of the Russian presidency.

Putin and his coterie are thus determined to oppose any vestige of popular sovereignty anywhere it rears its head. The Kremlin has even extended the “combat mission,” whatever that might be, of one of their naval vessels in Syria, although no one seems to have noticed.

Mission: To engage in combat-ready fist-shaking and a precision display of ill-temper if the U.S. intervenes.

Still, the U.S. and other nations could take action outside of the Security Council, including supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, and even striking selected targets inside Syria, as in the Libya operation. None of these would be hard to do.

And remember, when an “expert” says how hard it would be, that’s another way of saying “I don’t want us to do it.” We heard the same dire predictions about how tough it would be to suppress Libyan defenses; I remember replying to one retired military colleague before Libya that if the United States couldn’t clamp a no-fly zone over a desert nation of 7 million people right on the Med, then the U.S. taxpayer should ask for every penny back it ever paid for combat aviation.

Anyway, there are two obvious, and often-voiced, objections to intervention. The first is the usual complaint that no one has the right to interfere in the sovereign affairs of Syria or anyone else. The other is that it’s too dangerous: not to Western forces, who would face little serious threat from the Syrian military, but to the stability of the region.

A Norwegian F-16 over Kosovo, 1999

This first issue of “right” might have been persuasive decades ago, but the norm of inviolable sovereignty is long over. Hate all you want on George W. Bush, but President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are the people who really buried the non-intervention norm when NATO went to war in Kosovo in 1999.

(As usual, I’m inserting a shameless plug here: I detail the end of this norm and the emergence of a far more permissive international attitude, for better or worse, toward intervention in my 2008 book Eve of Destruction.)

I don’t think that’s wholly a bad thing: even Kofi Annan admitted in late 1999 that the world could no longer live with a set of rules that granted murderous dictators some kind of immunity from attack just because they happened to be in charge of a country at a given moment.

A French Mirage over Libya, 2011

There’s plenty of room to debate that larger problem of intervention. Where Syria’s concerned, however, there’s really no serious argument that Assad’s government now has the right to be just left alone. (Even the Russians haven’t pushed that one too far.)

At some point — and the boundary is hard to define, but Assad’s cleared it — the nature of the violence and the number of casualties makes internal fighting an international concern.

As Blair put in a famous speech in Chicago in 1999, Western nations saw themselves in Kosovo fighting a “just wars” not for their territorial interests but for their values. (“Realists” hate that argument, but realists tend to hate any arguments that require consideration of the actual beliefs and values of ordinary human beings. More on that another day.)

You're next, President Foster Grant

Opponents of intervention usually resort to an argument about consistency at this point. If Syria’s so important, why didn’t we intervene in Rwanda? Why not attack  Myanmar, or Belarus, or Zimbabwe? Why not attack China, for that matter?

This is a weak objection, and usually just boils down to a kind of overall indignation at Western intervention in general as only so much neo-imperialism in drag. Worse, it’s poor logic: it’s an argument that says if you can’t do everything then you shouldn’t do anything.

By that reasoning, if you’re arrested for selling heroin in Brooklyn, your lawyer should be able to get you off by pointing out that the police have not arrested every single dealer in every borough in New York, and that therefore you’re the victim of selective prosecution. It doesn’t matter if you’re a narco-kingpin, or if your preferred method of settling disputes  is to inflict high-velocity lead poisoning on your business associates. If the cops aren’t rounding up all the smack distributors, then they shouldn’t be rounding you up, either.

Consistency in any endeavor run by human beings is impossible, and all the more so in foreign policy. To insist on it is not only silly, but to worship consistency is to court paralysis (which is what anti-interventionists hope to achieve by demanding it).

I rather prefer the credo of the late, great Robert B. Parker‘s fictional detective, Spenser, who once said: “I do what I can, not what I should.”

What about the dire warnings that things will only get worse if the West arms the rebels, and supports them with air power? We’re already getting all the warnings that al-Qaeda is making its way into Syria (a prediction the Syrian regime just adores), and that if Assad falls, Syria will become an unholy mess, and terrorists will…

Wait a minute. Syria is already an unholy mess. Al-Qaeda, or what’s left of it, will almost certainly get involved, no matter what happens, because AQ’s rump forces gravitate to any violence in the region like suicidal moths to a bug zapper.

Better you than me, Bashir. Er...I mean, hang tough, my brother.

One of the major concerns, however, is that if we provide weapons to the Syrian resistance, those arms could find their way into the hands of terrorists. But Syria and its BFF in the region, Iran, are already major terror sponsors.

By what measure would arming and supporting the rebels be “worse” than a bloody victory by one of of the most terror-friendly regimes on earth? And has AQ had trouble getting weapons? Seriously — that’s our big worry?

(And does this mean that if we don’t intervene in Syria, can I can stop taking off my shoes in the airport?)

Realists preparing their arguments

And what’s the alternative? Some kind of hands-off “realist” solution? With respect to my friends who are realists (and they are the majority in the policy community, not people like me) I’m running out of different ways to say that “realism” as preached and practiced by late 20th century Americans was an immoral hodgepodge of contradictions.

Perhaps one of the very worst attributes of “realism” was, and is, the degree to which it prizes chimerical notions of “stability.” The equation is always the same: “If ghastly dictator X falls, things will get unstable.”

Well, sure they will. Progress and greater freedom often mean instability. Dictatorships, by contrast are highly stable — right up until they’re not. The Soviet Union was pretty stable under Stalin, and we Americans were so entranced by that stability that we hit a low point in 1991 when our own president implied that keeping the USSR together was better than instability. (I have already copped to the fact that I, stupidly, agreed with that position at the time and told the Senator I was advising at the time to support it. It still smarts to admit that.)

Critics will point to the current rise of Islamic conservatives in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East as proof enough that stability is better than freedom. But that ignores what I think is the reality that the repressive regimes in the region were going to fall one way or another. People might have feared Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, but were they really prepared for another forty years of torture under their sadistic, nitwit sons?

Just think: they could have been the guarantors of Iraqi "stability" -- and the avatars of its fashion industry -- for decades to come, if only we had minded our own business.

Like it or not, Islamism was going to get its shot at power at some point, and I think in the end actually trying to run things is going to humble the Islamic radicals more than they expect, especially in countries with a reasonably educated middle-class and access to a lot of social media. (Yeah, Egypt, I’m lookin’ at you.) It’s one thing to piss and moan about jihad, it’s another entirely to make sure the lights stay on and the drinking water is clean.

Make me proud, son. Kill 'em all.

What should I do, Dad?

So what’s the alternative to supporting the rebels? Benign neglect? Letting Bashir kill every last rebel, in the name of “stability?” The stabilization argument might have seemed more prudent last winter, but things are too far gone for any Western government worthy of its democratic values to accept that option now, thanks to Assad’s own actions.

The question isn’t whether to intervene, it’s when, how and how much. Let’s hope that this isn’t a replay of Libya, another slow tearing off of the bandage, in which we pretend the goal is not to topple the regime. McCain and Lieberman want to arm the rebels, and that seems the least we can do.

Assad has to go. The United States and its allies cannot control his unwillingness to step down. But we do have some power to limit how many more people have to die before his inevitable fall.

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  1. Yes, the rate of torture and killing in Libya has dropped *so* much since the Freedom Fighters there took over!

    • So, better to leave Qaddafi in power, right?

      PS: In case you didn’t read the news this morning:

      May 23, 9:23 AM (ET)


      CAIRO (AP) – More than 15 months after autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians streamed to polling stations Wednesday to freely choose a president for the first time in generations. Waiting hours in line, some debated to the last minute over their vote in a historic election pitting old regime figures against ascending Islamists.

      A sense of amazement at having a choice pervaded the crowds in line, along with fervent expectation over where a new leader will take a country that has been in turmoil ever since its ruler for nearly 30 years was toppled by mass protests.

  2. Ideals and self-interests sometimes reinforce policy sometimes conflict. Here, since Syria is an Iranian ally, I see more of the former than the latter. There are concerns about “apres Assad les deluge Islamiste,” just as is the case in Egypt.
    However, if that’s inevitable, that’s inevitable, and we certainly have more influence in Libya now than before, if we are likely to see the reverse in Egypt, an argument for taking out Assad, net American power, in terms of interests, and then in terms of ideals, that’s pretty obvious that your ideals would be like with Qaddaffi, a private ultimatum, followed by a bombardment. President Obama needs every ounce of credibility he has coming down the pike with Iran, although the North threw out a big bone not testing, smart that was on their part, and to have Anan get up and do his deal, and then Assad walks away… fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Volodya’s game here I believe by the way is to test Obama as to how far he will go, thereby again in terms of interests and ideals making the case for a one off “this is how it’s going to be, Provence under light French guard is nice most of the year, and beats Muammar’s end. Which will you chose?”