Is Syria a battle the U.S. should avoid?

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There are plenty of questions about President Obama’s plan to take military action against Syria in response to its alleged killing of hundreds of its own people with poisonous gas. Answers? Those are harder to come by, and we agree with members of Congress who are reluctant to sign off on the president’s request for lawmakers’ advance, and rather open-ended, approval.


First of all, it’s reasonable to ask what the United States stands to gain by launching strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and also what it might lose.


Some, including Sen. John McCain, who never met a saber he didn’t want to rattle, are calling for an assault that would wipe out Syria’s air defenses and its ability to wage war from the skies against rebels trying to overthrow Assad. In other words, the United States would be trying to shift the balance of power to the rebels and make it more likely that they will gain control of Syria.


But what then? There’s a very reasonable chance that the people who replace Assad might be more unpredictable and unfriendly toward the United States and its interests. The president might argue that the United States and its allies can throw their support behind factions in the Syrian opposition that are more likely to cooperate with the West. But the United States has a long history of supporting, installing or propping up bloodthirsty despots who either proved no better than the regimes they replaced or turned against the United States, or both. Some on that list include the Shah of Iran, the Somozas in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile and even a onetime friend of America named Saddam Hussein.


We also have seen how little our grievous loss of American blood and money has purchased in Iraq, which might well be in worse shape now that it was under Saddam. The same goes for Afghanistan, where we have installed a government that has proven to be famously corrupt and inept, and whose shelf life after the withdrawal of American troops might be akin to that of an unrefrigerated jug of milk on a hot Kabul afternoon.


Another question is, what exactly are we bombing in Syria? Our recent experiences with drone attacks indicate that women and children often end up on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry. Then there’s the matter of the chemical weapons that Assad is alleged to possess, and to have used. What would be the fallout, in literal terms, if we were to hit a stockpile of such materials?


The United States and its allies also have a track record of selective outrage, picking and choosing which despicable acts by violent dictators are going to pique their moral indignation.


Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe is, by most accounts, responsible for the extermination of tens of thousands of his own people, perhaps many more. Yet over the decades of his reign of terror, we have heard nothing about a military strike to stop that bloodshed. Regimes around the globe regularly commit genocide, some to a greater degree than Syria, but they attract no threats of attack by world powers. Assad, himself, has been systematically eradicating those who oppose his rule since early in 2011. It was only when he was accused of the recent mass killings that the call for outside military action against him ramped up. The lesson for dictators is fairly clear: Kill your citizens at a regular, moderate rate, and you most likely can get away with it. Wipe out hundreds in one fell swoop, and you might draw too much heat, depending on your location and strategic importance, of course.


Also, does the United States still retain the moral high ground needed to act as world police in this instance? We are now a country that has resorted to torture and kidnapping, allows for indeterminate detention of citizens without charge or trial, spies regularly on its own people and has engaged in the fairly regular killing of innocents in the pursuit of terror suspects.


Further, we have to wonder, after seeing the George W. Bush administration use faulty and fabricated intelligence to sell the country on a war in Iraq, whether the Obama administration really has the “goods” on Assad to the degree necessary to justify a non-defensive act of war against Syria.


The Russians seem to have a special interest in preserving the Assad regime. Perhaps we should let them take the lead in finding a solution to this particular international crisis.


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