Rejoinder: Why I’m Still Against Intervention in Syria
(Photo: The Guardian)
*NOTE: SEE UPDATE BELOW
My friend and colleague Andrew Parker has written an earnest defense of limited military intervention in Syria. Andrew and I tend to agree on most issues, particularly when it comes to our liberal-internationalist views on foreign policy. But in the case of Syria, we have reached an impasse. As said in my previous article, I am still opposed to military intervention in Syria.
I realize this puts me in some very uneasy company, including people like the “Answer Coalition”. But it also puts me in the company of most libertarians, liberals, and constitutionally minded conservatives as well. This includes Naoh Millman at The American Conservative, who writes There Is No Liberal Internationalist Case for War in Syria, saying that
If we launch an attack on Syria, it will not be under any legal warrant whatsoever. But the entire public justification for an attack is the to punish Syria for a crime of war – that is to say, the justification is the need to uphold international law. In other words, an attack would be an open declaration that the United States arrogates to itself the right to determine what the law is, who has violated it, what punishment they deserve, and to take whatever action is necessary to see it carried out. If that’s liberal internationalism, then I’m a kumquat.
In his piece, Why Inaction in Syria is Worse, Andrew addresses the various solutions and non-solutions that have been suggested by journalists and foreign policy leaders. At the core of his argument is the notion that America has a responsibility for attacking the root cause of the Syrian crisis, being the civil war itself. Branching off from this, his case for intervention comes down to a few essential points, which I will confront in turn.
1- Intervention by the US Navy and Air Force will give the rebels enough firepower at their side to take control of major population centers, eventually leading to the overthrow of Assad.
Desirable as this may be for some people, the notion that Assad will fall due to the added strength of US air power is far from certain. Remember, it was Hermann Goering himself who learned a hard lesson at the battle of Stalingrad when he tried and failed to keep the encircled 6th army alive from the air alone, without a comprehensive breakout plan. Field Marshall von Manstein did launch an offensive from the south to try and break the army free, but only when it was too late.
And again, the plan being discussed here is not the overthrow of Assad or even the picking of sides in the civil war, as Secretary of State John Kerry has re-iterated several times. The intervention is only being floated as an affectation to send a message that, while we tolerate the murder of innocents with conventional weapons, the use of chemical weapons is something we just cannot stand for! In an interview in The Washington Post, Senator James Risch (R-ID) describes the administration’s plan as “probably the first war in history where the attacking party has set out to not destroy the other side.” In the case of armed intervention, where people are most certainly going to die, one should not take action for the sake of “sending a message.”
There is also the problem of who the rebels are and if we would even want to support them should they win the civil war. If we had a Goldi-locks situation where the majority of the rebels were a group of secular liberal revolutionaries seeking to establish a modern constitutional republic, I would probably feel very different about our involvement. But that in no way is the case with Syria’s rebels, whose recent actions have driven fear into many in the Kurdish, Christian, and other minorities.
Andrew also states that “Syria has even more geopolitical strategic value with regards to Israel/Palestine, Iraq, and Iran, so having a friend here would be a golden opportunity and an entirely worthwhile investment”. First and foremost, I would dispute Andrew’s implied premise here, that the US should treat the globe like a chessboard with which to play the best game possible to further our interests. There is absolutely no guarantee that a regime change in Syria would create a new friend for us in the Middle East. For all we know, would could help move that white bishop to that space, only to see it turn black and put us in check.
2- Simply providing humanitarian aid will not be enough, due to the root cause of the humanitarian crisis itself.
Andrew constructs a clever analogy here, likening the use of humanitarian aid alone as “the foreign policy equivalent of giving an ice pack to someone who just lost a leg to a shark” (lol). But the fact that humanitarian aid, does not stop the root cause of the crisis does not mean that it is not the right decision. Andrew points out the logistical problems that will arrive as families settle and grow within the refugee camps. The problem with this line of reasoning is that these problems will arise and remain for sometime even with an intervention by the United States in the civil war. Even if the civil war ended tomorrow, it would take months if not years to resettle the Syrian refugees back into their home country.
I would also dispute our responsibility to remedy the root cause itself. The conflict does not represent an existential threat to the United States or its allies, and does not even fall into the realm of the responsibility-to-protect (or “R2P”) doctrine. Writing in The Washington Post, Mike Abramowitz points out that “Even China and Russia have endorsed the concept, and in the case of Libya, they allowed an intervention justified in the name of R2P to go forward”, but ends his piece with the bleak reality:
At its core, R2P works best in prevention. If the world had thought of Syria as an R2P problem two years ago, when only a handful of protesters had been shot dead by the Assad regime, we might have brought much greater financial, legal and diplomatic tools to bear and been in much better shape than we are today, facing only unpalatable options for halting the slaughter
Humanitarian aid to the refugees, logistical aid and border protection to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, and an international plan centered around reconciliation should be our focus at this time. A few days ago, Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) proposed legislation for a war crimes tribunal and made his case before John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:
“I plan on introducing a resolution when Congress reconvenes to authorize the President to establish a specialized Court—the Syrian War Crimes Tribunal—to help hold accountable, all those on either side, including Assad, who had slaughtered and raped in Syria,” Smith said. “We have learned lessons from the Special Court in Sierra Leone, we have learned lessons from the Rwandan Court, and certainly learned lessons from the Court in Yugoslavia. Establishment of such a court has to be immediate, and I think it could be a rallying point.”
For more rule-of-law options in dealing with the Syrian crisis, ones which don’t involve American-fired cruise missiles, I direct you to this article in Yes! magazine. If Andrew believes as he states that “The United Nations has already become a sham of an organization over this issue”, then let’s work to change that before we lend another green-light to our own military-industrial-complex.
3- Lack of intervention by the US will create a power vacuum for Russia, Iran, and other nations to enter.
As is the case with almost everything he’s done in his political career, Putin’s declarations are mostly empty posturing. Much like the Snowden affair, Russia has managed to make the United States look like the belligerent aggressor, especially with its plea to the Syrian authorities to turn over its supply of chemical weapons. Besides, at this point in the conflict, an intervention by the United States will look like an act of aggression and will continue to tip the balance in Putin’s favor by allowing him to look like the steady-handed mediator. As far as Iran’s mullahs are concerned, why provoke them further into a proxy war with the west? If the conflict centers around rival secular authoritarian and Islamist factions battling for control of Syria through various affiliate groups, what reason do we have to throw our cards in with it?
Peggy Noonan has an excellent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where she meets the contention about emboldening our rivals head on:
Are North Korea and Iran watching? Sure. They’ll always be watching. And no, they won’t say, “Huh, that settles it, if America didn’t move against Syria they’ll never move against us. All our worries are over.” In fact their worries, and ours, will continue.
I would also caution those in favor of intervention, who are also concerned about the leverage we have in world affairs, that an intervention by the US (and maybe France) could severely damage our ability to push for UN sanctions, embargoes, and other forms of diplomacy on bad actors in the future. It will also degrade the leverage we could otherwise exercise at the UN security council, as yet another illegal war on our part could lead to countries other than Russia and China to balk at us when we try to get something done.
Andrew also fears that inaction on our part will create a situation where “al-Qaeda will have been handed a new 1990s Afghanistan”, while forgetting that it was the United States who helped hand Afghanistan over to them in the first place. In that case, it was actually our lack of political, humanitarian, and diplomatic aid that allowed Afghanistan to descend into the darkness from which the 9/11 attacks (12 years ago today) sprung. With this in mind, our intervention in Syria may actually be more likely to create the very situation Andrew worries about. It’s a worry that I share myself.
The question of intervention in Syria is one I struggled with for a long time. From the start I agreed with those who said “Syria is not Iraq”, but as time went on realized that it wasn’t quite Bosnia or Kosovo either, as an article in The Atlantic addresses:
the biggest issue with comparing Kosovo and Syria: In Kosovo, NATO forces were, with few casualties on either side, able to help restore peace. In Syria, we have little hope — or intention — of doing so. Comparing the two situations makes little sense if the goals are so divergent.
The fact that you wish you could do something, or that your country could, is not on its own a justification for the use of force. Again, Andrew and I mostly agreed on Libya and the Arab Spring overall. But with our disagreement on the main premises of intervention in this case I feel we’ve met that point where “an unstoppable force meets and immovable object”, like that Joker scene in The Dark Knight. But I suppose time will tell. Though it may seem like so much has already happened, we’ve probably only begun to see this situation unfold.
(Whichever one of us is Batman or the Joker is anyone’s guess.)
UPDATE: I wrote this piece on Monday afternoon in direct response to Andrew’s article and intended to publish it today as to provide breathing space between posts. In the couple days that have passed, significant diplomatic developments have provided hope for a peaceful resolution, if not of the Syrian civil war itself, at least in relation to the current situation surrounding chemical weapons. Needless to say, Vladimir Putin has come out of this episode looking very clever indeed. We will have to see how the scenario plays out over the next couple weeks.