Although the US has been providing some covert support to the Syrian insurgency, Obama is working this week to increase US involvement after the reported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military. I've been following the situation with fascination. Anytime my extremely politically conservative evangelical friends and the New York Times are on the same page, you know something weird is going on, and that is what is happening right now. Obama, generally pretty averse to open military involvement, has asked Congress to support a limited military intervention in Syria (and all the libertarians were shocked and overjoyed with that very unexpected move).
I've been tracking the situation the entire time both because my job intersects some with international security issues and also because I am interested personally in politics and foreign policy. For the record, I was passionately against the invasion of Iraq and voted for Obama primarily because of his foreign policy positions. For a general overview of the situation and the main players, try this link.
A few comments.
Syria is a tragedy and a mess.100,000 or so have died in the conflict so far. Millions are displaced as refugees. That's bad. But, who is at fault? The President, Al Assad, has been skewered by the media but really I don't find much against him in my research from pre-insurgency days except that he is pretty well allied with Iran and Hezbollah. Mostly we don't like how he's handled the popular rebellion in his country. He's continued fighting, he hasn't stepped down, and in the process many have been killed. He may have used chemical weapons, but we're not sure.
Who is this rebel force? Well, that's the trouble.
We know little about them, but what we do know is that they are divided into hundreds – some say as many as 1,200 -- of small, largely independent, groups. And we know that the groups range across the spectrum from those who think of themselves as members of the dispersed, not-centrally-governed but ideologically-driven association we call al-Qaida, through a variety of more conservative Muslims, to gatherings of angry, frightened or dissatisfied young men who are out of work and hungry, to blackmarketeers who are trading in the tools of war, to what we have learned to call in Afghanistan and elsewhere "warlords."
Each group marches to its own drumbeat and many are as much opposed to other insurgents as to the government; some are secular while others are jihadists; some are devout while others are opportunists; many are Syrians but several thousand are foreigners from all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Recognition of the range of motivations, loyalties and aims is what, allegedly, has caused President Obama to hold back overt lethal-weapons assistance although it did not stop him from having the CIA and contractors covertly arm and train insurgents in Jordan and other places.
Source here, written by William Polk, veteran foreign policy advisor.In essence, I've applauded Obama for not getting us too deeply involved in a situation where we might not like the dictatorial leadership of a country but we don't know if the insurgency would actually be able to unite and be any better than Al Assad.
Is Syria like Iraq? That is the comparison everyone is making, but it's not like Iraq. Al Assad doesn't have the history that Saddam did. We almost certainly aren't going into the country with a massive ground invasion to almost uni-laterally take over the country. No one wants that, not Obama, not Congress, not the American public, and certainly not the rest of the world.
I think a better question is - is Syria like Afghanistan? It's not like Afghanistan in that they did not attack us, leaving us with a really good reason to take military action. However, it could be like Afghanistan in two ways. On the one hand, we don't want to become financially and militarily mired in a region that doesn't want our involvement and with little ability to change the local situation . There's a second connection, though. Once upon a time there was an insurgency in Afghanistan that fought a repressive government, and we armed and trained them quietly (the Mujaheddin fighting Russian occupiers). That came back and bit us in the rear when those we armed and trained became militants like the Taliban and Bin Laden (I wrote about this here). Just because someone fights our enemies doesn't make them necessarily a friend. We don't want to support the insurgency simply because they are fighting Al Assad. We know that some of the insurgents definitely are linked with militant Islam and the Al Qaida. We must tread carefully.
The question weighing on the conscience of America is this. Is Syria like Rwanda? President Bill Clinton says that his biggest regret from his eight years as President was not intervening in the tragic slaughter in Rwanda, in which about 500,000 people were killed in about 100 days. We did nothing and the UN did next to nothing (watch Hotel Rwanda and be sobered), and Clinton says that if we'd acted we might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. There is something to be said for the responsibility of a world power when there is massive injustice being done. There's that famous quote from Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." With 100,000 dead in Syria so far, it's serious. The "red line" that Obama laid out was the use of illegal weapons. Chemical weapons have been used in Syria now, and what's really ramped up the current discussion was the releasing of 21 gas canisters in Damascus on August 21st that left 1,000 people dead. That's serious. I certainly don't want the international community to turn a blind eye to that type of act.
But - who released those canisters? Al Assad's regime has been blamed, but I don't think his responsibility is totally clear yet (again, read Polk's detailed analysis of the reports on the use of chemical weapons). I also am having dejavu to my days of reading UN weapons inspectors reports as I tried to decide if I would support Bush's calls for an Iraq invasion. Back then, and now, I am amazed that we consider acting before full reports come in.
Here's a suggestion. What if Syria is like Libya? In Libya we worked with allies to provide limits, pressure, and some focused engagement during an insurgency against a dictator. Our support limited the atrocities of Qaddafi, but not getting involved any further forced the rebels to unite, form their own government, and own the process of rebuilding the country. It is, admittedly, still in process. I wrote about why our involvement was a smarter way to respond to crises here. Could our involvement in Syria be like Libya? If so, we need to work for support of our allies rather than moving unilaterally and alienating them (currently, neither the UN nor the British Parliament will back military action), and we need to be smart and creative in limited response. As someone said on facebook, okay Obama, it's time to earn that Nobel Peace Prize.
What if we don't act, and Assad wins in the end? There's no way to know for sure, but here's one article on the topic. Assad would probably become more dictatorial as he squashes opposition. Because we so clearly drew a line in the sand and said we'd act if chemical weapons were used, inaction would probably damage our credibility in the region (however, how credible are we, really?). Iran's influence would grow and so would Syria's dependence on them. Our democratic allies in the region (Turkey, Israel) would feel destabilized by a stronger Iran. Then there are the oil and gas interests in the region, which are threatened by ongoing conflict (don't even get me started on oil and gas...). All in all, certainly not ideal. Worth the possibly immense cost of intervention? Not necessarily.
For me, there are a few key things I'm waiting on. I'm intrigued by what Congress will say. I really hope we wait for further reports from the UN and other intelligence on the use of the chemical weapons and who was responsible for them before acting. I wouldn't want to act without the support of key allies. I DO think that limited engagement (like Libya) can be possible, and I am not an isolationist or pacifist that is against any engagement. However, I am very, very hesitant about American military intervention of any kind. Currently I am watching and waiting to see what is proposed.