Caution still necessary on Syria

June 15, 2013

Last Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton remarked at an event he was attending with Sen. John McCain that President Obama risked looking like a “wuss” or a “fool” by not intervening in Syria, and unfavorably compared Obama’s reticence on Syria to his own intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s.

We’ll grant that, yes, perhaps you momentarily run the risk of looking like a “wuss” if you don’t put up your dukes at the first sign of a fight. But you also stand a better chance of walking away without a bloody nose, a mouthful of broken teeth, or worse.

Though likely not in response to Clinton’s provocations, on Thursday the Obama administration announced it was supplying small arms and ammunition to rebels in Syria, following convincing reports that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons on his opponents, killing up to 150 of them. The administration, from all reports, is divided on whether any further action should be taken.

We believe a cautious approach is the wisest one.

After two grinding, inconclusive wars in the Middle East in the last decade, both of which involved tremendous losses in treasure and lives, there’s understandably little passion on the part of the vox populi to undertake another adventure in the region. Despite the estimated loss of almost 93,000 lives in Syria in the last two years, a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted earlier this month found that 61 percent of those who responded believed the U.S. was not duty-bound to intervene in the ongoing Syrian civil war. While we doubt if most of those queried could offer a detailed breakdown of the players and the stakes in Syria, it’s a good bet that even if they were personally provided a PowerPoint presentation complete with charts and graphs, they still would tell the hawks – correctly, in our view – to cool their jets.

If we were to engage in an air assault on Syria, like the one deployed in Bosnia, its chances of success are hardly assured. The air defenses of the Assad regime are said to be formidable, and there’s a high probability that the civilian casualty toll from an air campaign would be considerable. And, as Steven Chapman of Reason magazine recently argued, an air campaign might provoke Assad and his allies to burn though more of the stockpiles of chemical weapons they possess. More than one observer has pointed out that some of the forces arrayed against the Assad regime also happen to be jihadists with links to al-Qaeda. Though the downfall of Assad would be a positive development, concerns about who or what would replace the Assad autocracy are not without abundant justification.

Clinton must believe that the U.S. aggressively putting its thumbs on the scales in Syria would help drive all the parties to the negotiating table, which was the end result of the U.S. stepping in to the Bosnian brawl. But, as the Brookings Institution recently pointed out, replicating the Bosnian strategy in Syria might not meet with the same success. “The opposition in Syria is more fractious and more difficult to control,” they explained, noting that the rebels in Bosnia pretty much took their marching orders from Washington, D.C. Moreover, the Assad regime has longstanding military, economic and political ties to Russia. Though we’re not on a Cold War hair-trigger anymore, “The challenge for Washington (D.C.) is to find a way to change the military balance on the ground without alienating Moscow.”

At some point, direct American military intervention, along with a healthy assist from our allies, might be the best option in Syria. But that moment has not yet arrived. Right now, proceeding with a mix of aid to opposition forces and aggressive diplomacy is the most prudent course.



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