The U.S. and Syria: Not Iraq, not Vietnam — and not Sicily

Damascus said it went down due to “technical” difficulties — as in, “technically, it can’t fly with a missile in its tailpipe.”

I was about to hit “publish” on this post when I saw that the wires are sending out the story that the Syrian rebels have downed a Syrian government military jet.

The rebels say they took down a MiG-23 and have its pilot, alive. We’ll see. But all the more reason to take more seriously the idea that it’s time for a no-fly zone, among other actions.

Bob Lieber of Georgetown University wrote at today about why the United States needs to finally get engaged — really engaged — on ending the Syrian bloodbath:

The Obama administration has waited far too long to take a more active role on Syria. While the fighting rages on, the U.S. has largely been on the sidelines, not even “leading from behind” as it eventually did in Libya 17 months ago. Instead, as Fouad Ajami has recently written, the administration’s policies have been marked by “political abdication and sophistry.”

We do not need boots on the ground. We do need to provide support to the free-Syrian movement in the form of intelligence, weapons, ammunition, training, communications, and the creation and protection of safe zones in liberated areas as a place for refugees and as bases for the opposition to equip and organize. These steps should also enable us to strengthen the hand of those who seek a stable and peaceful future for Syria.

A Syrian rebel enforcing his own no-fly zone

The United Nations and Kofi Annan took their shot. The Russians have done their best to save Assad. What’s left?

Bob’s point about “boots on the ground” is especially important. Opponents of intervention typically use the ploy of presenting “all or nothing” options, in which we face the false choice of going all-in, and doing Vietnam II or Desert Storm III, or whatever — or doing nothing.

This was the strategy that the Athenian statesman and general Nicias tried to use to dissuade the Athenians from attacking Syracuse in 415 BC. Nicias asked for a force far larger than the one he thought the assembly would approve, and it blew up in his face: the Athenians gave him everything he asked for and sent him off to Sicily — but not before he tried to backpedal on the whole thing:

Although this assembly was convened to consider the preparations to be made for sailing to Sicily, I think, notwithstanding, that we have still this question to examine, whether it be better to send out the ships at all, and that we ought not to give so little consideration to a matter of such moment, or let ourselves be persuaded by foreigners into undertaking a war with which we have nothing to do.

Message from Sicily: Oops.

Unfortunately, the Athenians also put three different guys in charge of the operation, and the resulting invasion was a disaster. (A good idea poorly executed, or a bad idea? We ask our students this at the War College every year.)

Anyway, we should be long past arguments about Syrian sovereignty, or the future of Assad, or “boots on the ground,” or “quagmires” or any of the other detritus that has come from years of too much worship of the misbegotten and un-strategic postulates of the so-called “Powell Doctrine” or the “Powell-Weinberger Doctrine.” (More on that in another post. Don’t get me started.) This is not Vietnam, it’s not Libya, it’s not Iraq and it’s not Mars. It’s Syria, and it’s not like we don’t know how to do things in places like Syria.

Syria is a different country than it was a year ago, and Assad no longer has any claim to be its leader. The Russians will squawk, as the Russians always do, when the West brings force to bear on a dictator. (Maybe the Chinese will sit this one out, like they’ve been wont to do with issues outside the Asia-Pacific region.) But once again, we’re out of excuses about why we shouldn’t do anything, and have plenty of reasons to get involved. It’s time to be creative — and unlike the doomed Nicias, decisive.

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  1. I’m not opposed to a no fly zone, but need America go it alone? Surely members of the Arab Coalition and our traditional allies see a need to ending Assad’s rule. But dip a toe in the water and the whole boot will surely follow. It’s had to predict a quagmire and it’s too last when one occurs. The only way to ameliorate the situation is with help, lots of help, in manpower, jets, support systems, and fuel. What will the end game look like if such an effort succeeds? Already, there are Muslim extremists trying to infiltrate the command structure of the rebel alliance. For what, another national breeding ground for extremism powered by advanced military hardware and chemical weapons? That’s a dicey proposition.

  2. Andrew – I wish it weren’t so, but there’s no way the French under Hollande are going to go in and do this. The rest of NATO is busy with Europe’s economy melting down. Maybe we can get help, but I don’t think we need it: we’re talking about a no-fly over Syria, not over China. I have always liked George H.W. Bush’s mantra: “Together if we can, alone if we must.”

    The argument that it could all go bad if the rebels win is another of those arguments that ignores a larger reality: it’s already all gone bad. I mean, think about it: that’s exactly the same argument we’ve heard during the whole Arab Spring: “Extremists could take over.” Whew, yes, better to have level-headed guys like Assad and Qaddafi in charge.

    This change is going to happen, with or without us. The question is what role we want to play in it.

  3. Actually, for me the lesson of the disaster at Syracuse is that if your commander doesn’t believe in the mission, get another commander, like Lee some would argue needed per Longstreet at Gettysburg. (Lonstreet wanted to move away, to make Meade assume the tactical offensive to protect D.C., and was ticked Lee didn’t listen, and so Longstreet missed Hood’s suggestion to pass Little Rountop on the right, costing Hood his arm and the South the wa, some have argued).
    Per Mr. Pritzker, or Dr. as that is not identified, there are strategic reasons to mash Assad that are not actually dissimliar to Alcibiades argument: Iran and Ivan.
    If we don’t just do a no fly zone, but see the game to the end, and launch or credibly threaten to launch, a real bombardment, and the Libyan bombardment was pretty tepid, if it worked, because it was Libya and not Syria, which means like more than 1,000 PGM’s on a concetrated basis, maybe even a Shock and Awe level of sorties, given the targets, WMD included, then we can look at Ivan and say, “If you have a really bad problem with that,yipeekayay and see you when we see you … or, Volodya, you can see the bright side of re-building contracts etc, and this is what would happen with Iran in the end, so if it’what could we do anyway, or, we do the plan that makes sense for you given what we are dealing with in general in the Middle East (which we both remember is why Brezhnev was drugged by Andropov with sleeping pills, because he thought everyone there wanted to bring on WWIII and he would get dragged into that. Think of this as being pro-active Volodya, and you got along with W. just fine). Something to think about Volodya, if we give you your props, and, you could be the hero still by inviting Assad to vactation in discreet opulence with, still, living relatives in Sochi.” With Iran, the argument could be made “Did you see that demonstration? Do you get the point now of all the bombers and naval power in the Gulf are not a bluff, and quit putting that gun to your head with your nuclear weapons program with Israel before someone there pulls the trigger for us, and then if we don’t back down Ivan and the Lee’s the right way, plus protect Eurpean and Japanese oil after an Israeli strike, we are looking like its time for the Mahdi to return anyway, and so will have to efface much of your regime from the Earth, and so we might as well get a head start. Or, we have this deal here where we salvage your pride while keeping our ally on a leash, not easy in this case, in space. Iranians in space on the Space Station, or just pick something reasonable, but space has a charm. Plus, since we’re a generous Great Satan, you have one enrichment facility monitored like Ft. Knox gold as to anything past five per cent enrichment, under continuous if discreet Swedish and Ecuadorean monitorings, as to political neutrality, and if you don’t see that as in your self-interest, you are in fact every bit as crazy as the Israelis say you are, and then nuclear weapons you want, very funny. Did you get the point in that bombardment of Assad, Persian?”
    That would be of the type of argument Alcibiades advanced before the Syracusan expedition, plus, we’d have more say on the ground in Syria proper, within the limits of what that could ever be in a different culture, something to take with deadly seriousness of course as to “Dragons overseas” and Adams I, plus some bad memories people have about Iraq it would seem too. Then again, the longer a war goes on like that without resolution, the more it becomes Kraterus, to the stongest, and that isn’t likely to be a good thing Assad or not.
    “To the bold, victory” doesn’t always work either, if its still a good motto.