No good options are available to the United States in dealing with Syria’s criminal regime. There seems little doubt that Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people, and it is clearly in the U.S. interest to deter that behavior in Syria or elsewhere.
But, as military analysts noted in Wednesday’s Buffalo News, limited military attacks at other times have done little to alter the course of events. While sustained military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have had some undeniable impact, they haven’t produced the results that American leaders had hoped, especially given the costs in dollars and blood.
President Obama needs to resolve this conundrum by applying a narrow focus: The United States should attack Syria only if it can eliminate or severely impair Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons and, even then, only as one of several nations arrayed in the response. What is more, the Arab nations most concerned about Assad’s government, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, should play prominent, if not leading, roles in assembling and directing that response.
Without those conditions, the United States is taking a greater risk than it can justify. That is true politically, since most Americans doubt the value of an attack, as well as militarily and diplomatically. We have an interest in stopping the horror of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but we are not alone in that, nor can we be alone in confronting it. And that assumes the confrontation would accomplish its goals, which is no sure thing.
Either way, the risks are severe. If we do nothing, Assad and other despots will correctly interpret Obama’s “red lines” as meaningless. It will embolden them, perhaps at the cost of tens of thousands of lives the next time chemical weapons are used.
If the United States launches an attack – especially if it does so alone – it could widen the conflict. Syria, Iran or Hezbollah could even attack Israel, which would draw the United States further into the rat’s nest of Middle East conflict.
In moving forward, the Obama administration needs to show that it has learned something from 11 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have not been able to change the culture of those nations or even to install stable governments, despite spending billions of dollars.
Our attack on Afghanistan was imperative, but Iraq was an option, and a bad one. Syria is an option, too, and it doesn’t look promising. Previous limited attacks on al-Qaida and Iraq, both in 1998, demonstrably failed to deter those players. So did the U.S. bombing of Libya in 1986.
So, what will it accomplish today to rain missiles on Syria? If it will end or limit Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons, that is one thing. If not, we are better off doing more to support the rebels.
As we said, no good options.