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Why Obama should stay out of Syria

It’s a mission impossible.

Because of the severe (and understandable) limitations it’s placing on a possible military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration would do better to pass on the idea. The U.S. shouldn’t try to play the humanitarian in a civil war like that one under such self-imposed restrictions; it’s much more likely to end up doing harm than good.

Since last Wednesday’s chemical weapons attack that killed at least many hundreds of Syrian civilians, and which the U.S., Britain, France, Israel and others are convinced was carried out by Assad’s forces, Obama has been gearing up for some sort of military move. The ones most discussed are reportedly a “surgical strike” on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons by missiles fired from long range by U.S. ships, and/or the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria. Nobody is talking about putting American or other Western soldiers on the ground there, not as fighters or as peacekeepers; after Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody wants to get in the middle of another Middle Eastern civil war. Instead, the idea is a no-risk, remote control operation that stops the use of chemical weapons, doesn’t last long, and that has a guaranteed exit strategy.

In other words, if the Syrians or their ally in the field Hezbollah hit back at American targets after a U.S. missile strike, or violate a no-fly zone, or attack Israel or Turkey or Saudi Arabia or some other enemy and thereby take the Syrian war regional, it would screw up the plan. America would have to strike back decisively – as many times as it takes – or walk away humiliated, giving Assad, Hezbollah and Iran an undreamed-of victory.

Neither America nor any other Western power has the stomach for such an adventure. And the thing is, Assad, Hezbollah and Iran know it, which would seem to almost guarantee that if the U.S. acts militarily in Syria, it will meet with military resistance. Real simple: If America can’t stand the heat, and it can’t, it should stay the hell out of the kitchen, or rather the oven that is the Syrian civil war.

But even if Assad and Hezbollah didn’t retaliate against U.S. action, how much good could America do?  At best it would destroy a lot of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, but there will still be plenty left. And it would not reduce the killing going on in that country. In less than two and a half years of civil war, at least 100,000 Syrians were killed by purely conventional means before last Wednesday; neither Assad’s army nor his jihadist-dominated opponents need nerve gas to kill hundreds or even more people in a single day. They’ve done it plenty of times with conventional rockets, bombs, bullets and even more primitive weapons, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue after the U.S. missile strike, if it happens, is done.

As for a no-fly zone, this June 17 article in Time magazine is worth reading. It quotes U.S. military officials and experts saying Syria’s world-class air defenses would make such an operation much more dangerous for U.S. pilots than any no-fly zone they’d patrolled in the past. An even more sobering point about the limited value of a no-fly zone is made by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“About 10% of the casualties that are being imposed on the Syrian opposition are occurring through the use of air power,” Dempsey estimated in late April. “The other 90% are by direct fire or by artillery.”

Yet another prohibition on U.S. military action, one that’s obvious, is that by hurting Assad’s forces, Obama would not be helping the “good guys” in the war because there are none, except for the Syrian nationalists who started the uprising but are now a marginal factor. By hurting Assad, Obama for the most part would be helping Al Qaeda and the other jihadists leading the opposition, which can’t be good for his or America’s morale. And Assad, Hezbollah and Iran know that, too, which would give them one more reason to hang tough.

So why is Obama seemingly very close to getting America’s armed forces involved in Syria? Because he’s committed himself publicly to doing so if Assad uses chemical weapons; he’s called that a “red line,” and the president of the United States isn’t supposed to make empty threats or he’ll hold America and himself up to ridicule, he’ll project weakness to America’s enemies, and no president wants to do that. The other reason is because the killing of many hundreds of civilians, including children, with a weapon of mass destruction, with chemical weapons such as the nerve agents evidently used in Syria last Wednesday, strikes a kind of absolute fear and loathing in many people that spurs them to demand action. That they can tolerate the killing of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians, including children, by other, no less gruesome methods, as well as that of millions of African civilians, including children, over the years, is irrelevant; Assad used chemical weapons on civilians, the U.S. president called this a red line, so, in the view of many folks, he has to act.

But he shouldn’t get Americans killed. And he shouldn’t get in too deep, and he should get out soon. And he should have something to show for it in the end. And he shouldn’t make things worse.

Under those sorts of restraints, this is a mission impossible, and Obama should not get into it. If Assad uses chemical weapons again, if he gasses hundreds of civilians, including children, again, and again, let America and the rest of the world see what more they can do in the way of rescue. With the kind of terminally hamstrung military campaign they’re discussing in Washington, London and Paris, they’d be largely going through the motions of humanitarian intervention in Syria, one that has little if any chance of saving lives, and a substantial chance of forfeiting many more of them.

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    1. Philos

      The West, especially the British and French, have been salivating for a war against Assad for months. Yet there is still no concrete evidence for chemical weapons use other than a few YouTube clips and the testimonies of sympathetic NGOs to the rebel cause. That David Cameron is so gung-ho for it should raise a massive red flag over the veracity of this incident. Anyone who remembers the “45-minute” claim by Tony Blair knows that British intelligence is bullshit. They might have a proven track record at domestic surveillance (and repression) but the British intelligence service hasn’t been much to write home about internationally. Apart from participating in torture sessions in Libya (and probably Syria too until Assad became a “bad guy”).

      The rank hypocrisy of the Americans, British and French is sickening. For all we know the rebels gassed those people to enable an intervention. After all, shortly after the first alleged use the chief UN inspector said that most evidence pointed to rebel use. No mention of that embarrassing faux pas in the press these days.

      The whole thing stinks!

      Reply to Comment
      • Gideon (not Levy)

        What Every Journalist Knows:::
        Not to believe AUTHORITY when it calls a PRESS CONFERENCE and refuses to answer questions following his “statement”
        in the case of John Kerry this is especially AUDACIOUS, since as a VIETNAM WAR Veteran he ought to know how many Vietnamese, Laosian and Cambodian were Killed by AGENT ORANGE (see wikipedia) just as we don’t yet know who were the UNKNOWN chemical AGENTS in Syria.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Le Figaro reported that American, Israeli and Jordan commandos are operating in Syria since mid august.
      “the United States isn’t supposed to make empty threats”. Maybe not, but he IS supposed to make empty promises (Cairo Speech?).
      Israel already attacked Syria in july.
      The question to ask is: who’ll profit?
      “Syria is the only significant crude oil producing country in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which includes Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.” (wikipedia)
      From this fine lot, Israel is without doubt the one who could force its will upon the others.

      Reply to Comment
    3. I’m not much for geopolitical event speculation, as I know almost nothing, but here will say I doubt Assad ordered this chemical attack. I have not, since the beginning of this conflict when security forces would open fire on funerals, felt Assad has full command and control. I suspect someone in the military ordered it, for reasons of internal policy and resource competition. I think Assad something of a patsy, more puppet than puppeteer.

      Chemical and nuclear weapons forego all proportion: they are solely means of total war, designed to wipe out population as such. Other weapons can as well, but they can be relatively more refined in target. Chemical weapons, more portable, readily morph into population terrorism. I think there has to be a red line, not just for Syria but later expansion elsewhere.

      What to do? Show command and control it will pay heavily. I would target, in a single night, the probable whereabouts of all major command and control personnel. One would get enough to make the point. The focus would be on decision, not material capacity. And if this happened to take out Assad, that would be part of the point.

      Hezbollah and Iran have aligned themselves with nerve agents. Long term, this will harm them. These agents allow no fanciful distinction between militant and human livelihood (as measured, for instance, by children). I believe Islam will ultimately react against this fusion.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Engelbert Luitsz

      Just heard John Kerry’s speech, written by AIPAC, which leaves no room for Obama to take a different course. Israël, you did it again. We can expect incredible amounts of casualties in Syria, to protect the wet dreams of the zionist elite.

      Reply to Comment
      • Engelbert Luitsz

        for ‘protect’, please read ‘fulfill’.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Gideon (not Levy)

      (sing to the tune of “birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it” let’s GO TO WAR”)…
      * Didn’t Dow Chemicals do it? Didn’t Monsanto? So which American President use AGENT ORANGE on VIETNAM, LAOS and CAMBODIA?
      * Didn’t the great friend of Israel do it? Was it Harry, oh Harry Truman who ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
      * How could one forget the “father of invention”, George Bush (senior) who fixed Saddam a loan after “Chemical Ali” gassed Halabja in 1988… and what about his son George Dubya, who sent his forces to ‘shake and bake’ in Iraqi Falluja.
      *** And wouldn’t Yaalon, “Bibi” and Tsipi be doing us all a favour if they too start behaving like normal human-being do. . . “birds do it, bees do it – Even educated fleas do it – Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” (instead of WAR)

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Why was the Atomic bombs on Japan any worse than any of the other actions the Americans took in the war? The Atomic Bombs saved millions of JAPANESE lives in addition to those of the Allies. 100,000 Chinese were dying every MONTH in 1945 and had the war dragged on another year as would have likely happened (the Japanese gov’t slogan in summer 1945 was “100 million die together!”, as might have happened had the bombs not been dropped, another million Chinese would have died, in addition to tens of thousand Allies soldiers, thousands of Allied prisoners, thousands of Asian slave laborers of the Japanese, etc, etc. Or is all of this irrelevant to you?

        Reply to Comment
    6. But he shouldn’t get Americans killed. And he shouldn’t get in too deep, and he should get out soon. And he should have something to show for it in the end. And he shouldn’t make things worse.

      Obama is tiptoeing in so as to differentiate himself from his cowboy predecessor even though he is in many respects as much of a warmonger as Bush despite the “progressive” facade. He’s also taking his time – red lines notwithstanding – because a mere 9% of the American public according to a most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll favor intervention in Syria.

      These things have a way of getting out of hand. Once the U.S. deploys missiles all bets are off. Getting out with “something to show for it” isn’t the way these forays usually go, especially given the broader regional situation as it pertains to Iran. Signs are it’s going to get messy.

      As for Kerry’s righteous indignation and moral posturing – give me a break. The American track record in the carnage and mayhem dept speaks for itself, not to mention its support for Saddam when he was deploying chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds. When its interests are involved the U.S. is much less indignant about the use of “heinous weapons.”

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ol' John Kerry Revisited

      In a speech in 1971 John Kerry asked:
      How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

      Kerry got 2 medals for his service in Vietnam. A Silver Star and a Bronze Star. In additional he was honoured with 3 “Purple Hearts”.

      Securing an early return to the United States, Kerry joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in which he served as a nationally recognized spokesman and as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. He appeared before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs where he deemed United States war policy in Vietnam to be the cause of “war crimes.”

      On 22 April 1971 He addressed the Senate Committee: “I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command…
      They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”
      ‎Then he added: “And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart…”
      “We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone on peace… We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai… We watched the U.S. falsification of body counts… We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European theater”.
      It was John Kerry, no other who asked, rhetorically: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

      This was Kerry’s statement, based on his own experience, which he contradicts and denies today.


      Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      A very eloquent explanation that can be extrapolated to a potential Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the uselessness of American security guarantees that would be given to Israel in return for giving up strategic territories. Should Israel be attacked, well-meaning “progressives” would give similar reasons why the US should stay out (‘who needs to get involved in another Middle East war, any security guarantees given to Israel are now obsolete…etc, etc’) and Israel would be left high and dry. In any event the US is a country in decline and even if they did have the desire to help, they are becoming progressively weaker and isolationist. Thus, the conclusion is that American security guarantees CAN NOT BE RELIED ON and Israel would be very foolish to take the risks involved in creating a Palestinian state.
      Thank you for pointing this out so clearly.

      Reply to Comment
    9. […] – “Why Obama Should Stay Out of Syria”: Iniciar la guerra es llevar todas las de perder. http://972mag.com/why-obama-should-stay-out-of-syria/77896/ […]

      Reply to Comment