Syria is a nightmare landscape of uncontrolled violence. Violence has been precipitated by a dictator, Bashar Assad, who has decided to hold onto power at any cost (including gassing his own people), catalyzed by multiple, equally violent Islamist factions, none of which can be trusted and all of which hate the West, stirred by the barbaric group, ISIS, nudged by al Qaeda, and confused by Russian involvement and Iranian support. The end result is a continuing catastrophe—a never-ending flow of refugees to the West, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, and a conflict that will end only when the principals exhaust themselves with violence.
Six years ago, things were bad, but not nearly as bad as they are now. The previous administration, defined "red lines," but then walked away. It ceded any influence in Syria to Russia and Iran and allowed ISIS and other Islamic groups to spread a reign of terror. Now, this toxic brew has bubbled over. Last week, Bashar Assad used Sarin nerve gas, a WMD, on his people. He again crossed a red line, but this time, the new administration in Washington didn't hesitate to send him a message.
Last night, the U.S military launched 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles and destroyed the airfield in Syria from which the gas attacks were launched. The message that the attack delivered said this: (1) the use of WMDs will not stand and those who do so will reap a swift and violent reaction; (2) the United States is no longer on the sideline—it will react when egregious actions threaten the stability of a region; (3) the Russians and the Iranians, both bad actors in a region ceded to them by the previous administration, can no longer expect the feckless actions of the previous administration, (4) the North Koreans can expect consequences when they act badly, and finally, (4) our allies can trust that the United States will act rather than talk, will clearly delineate friends from foes, and will lean forward when necessary.
But there should be another message—this one for the Trump Administration.
With the exception of a tiny liberal democracy in its midst, a significant percentage of the Arab Middle East is a cesspool. There are no clean solutions that can fix broken countries, there is no possibility of democratic rule, there is no magic bullet that will rebuild moribund economies or fix broken social structures. Much of this is a result of Islamic fundamentalism that encourages Muslims to perceive themselves as victims and look outward for scapegoats (i.e., Israel and the West), rather than inward for solutions.
Donald Trump was justified in sending a violent military message, but he should otherwise stay out of Syria. After our feckless approach to that broken country over the past eight years, there is nothing that can be done to save it. Our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan offer the Trump administration a warning. They should heed it.
suggests a number of questions that should be answered before making any move into Syria:
1) What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?
2) How will deposing Assad make America safer?
3) What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved? Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?
4) What military resources (e.g., ground troops), diplomatic resources, and financial resources will be required to achieve this political victory?
5) How long will it take to achieve political victory?
6) What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?
7) What other countries will join the United States in deposing Assad, in terms of military, monetary, or diplomatic resources?
8) Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?
9) What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?
10) If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?
11) Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?
12) Assuming the Assad regime is successfully removed from power, what type of government structure will be used to replace Assad, who will select that government, and how will that government establish and maintain stability going forward?
13) Given that a change in political power in the United States radically altered the American position in Iraq in 2009, how will you mitigate or address the risk of a similar political dynamic upending your preferred strategy in Syria, either in 2018, 2020, or beyond?
14) What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?
Until these questions are answered with specificity, and until the U.S. government is open and honest with the American people about the potential risks and likely costs of a war to remove Assad from power in Syria, it makes little sense to discuss the idea further.
I agree. In fact, the next time anyone suggests that any additional Syrian intervention is the right thing to do, they should be forced to answer each of the 14 questions posed by Davis.
Intervention in Syria after allowing the problem to fester for so many years is no-win. The message within the message should be—Stay out.
There is yet another message in all of this, one well worth considering the next time you listen to a trained hamster in the media talk about Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in a disparaging manner. Sohrab Ahmari
wrote this before the missile attack:
Benjamin Netanyahu will never be popular in America’s major newsrooms. Or among most of the think-tankers who set the tone and parameters of foreign-policy debate. His name is a curse on college campuses. So it’s worth asking whose vision of the Middle East has held up better under the press of recent events.
His or theirs?
The question comes to mind as Western governments confront this week’s chemical atrocity in Syria, and as footage of children’s bodies convulsing in agony once more unsettles the world’s conscience. Even President Trump, who generally lacks a moral language, was moved, though whether he will act remains to be seen.
His predecessor had a rich moral vocabulary and a coterie of award-winning moralizers like Samantha Power on staff. But President Obama refused to act when Bashar Assad crossed his chemical red line. He wanted to extricate Washington from the region, and he saw a nuclear deal with Mr. Assad’s Iranian patrons as the exit ramp.
Such a deal came within grasp when Hassan Rouhani launched his presidential campaign in Iran four years ago this month. The smiling, self-proclaimed “moderate” was the Iranian interlocutor the Obamaians had been waiting for. Mr. Netanyahu posed the main obstacle.
The Israeli prime minister warned that Mr. Rouhani didn’t have the power to moderate the regime even if he had the will. He reminded the world of Mr. Rouhani’s role in Iran’s repressive apparatus and his history of anti-American rhetoric. He insisted that Iranian regional aggression wouldn’t relent if sanctions were removed. Iran, he predicted, would pocket the financial concessions, then press ahead in Syria and elsewhere.
The Israeli could be opportunistic, given to hyperbole and not a little vulgar in pressing his case. He was also right.
Yeah, Bibi was right, and as usual, his critics on the Left were dead wrong. Wrong about Syria, wrong about the Iran deal, and wrong about coercing Israel into a bad "peace deal." But what else is new?
Come to think about it, in his first months in office, Donald Trump is too often "given to hyperbole and not a little vulgar in pressing his case." But the odd thing is—he too is often right.