Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Question for Liberals

What should the US do in (or about) Syria?


  1. We can't do a ground invasion, but if there are other military options, the smaller bore the better, we should consider them. We must keep in mind at all times, sadly, that many of the most fervent opponents of the Baathist regime are Islamists that wish us all. Hence the need to avoid geopolitical entanglement even in the face of humanitarian tragedy.

    I have no moral qualms with Bashar al-Assad taking an American-ordered, extra-judicial "trip to Belize," but don't know if this is practically obtainable or strategically desirable.

  2. I'd let Turkey (our NATO ally) and/or Israel and/or other regional actors step up action further before we do anything. Their national and regional interests are actually directly threatened. We should also exhaust absolutely all UN avenues and table pounding, and impose further sanctions or measures on Syria's allies before we actually consider direct non-covert military operations. The executive branch should also get authorization from Congress.

    It would also be good for Obama or his surrogates to cut the media down a peg or two. Most TV journalists I've seen are already cheering McCain on and are chomping at the bit for Obama to ASAP "do something." They've learned absolutely nothing.

  3. Anonymous said:

    "Most TV journalists I've seen are already cheering McCain on and are chomping at the bit for Obama to ASAP "do something.""

    Meanwhile, you seem to be asking Turkey or Israel to "do something. TapirBoy1 also seems interested in "doing something", albeit not a full invasion.

    Nobody bothers to explain what good they expect to come from any of these interventions.

    What is the goal? Shouldn't we have a clearly defined goal before we (or our allies) get involved?

    Even many liberals seem to want to jump in now and come up with a reason later. Let's start with our objective and work backward from there.

    1. I wasn't intending to give off that vibe by writing: "I'd let Turkey (our NATO ally) and/or Israel and/or other regional actors step up action further before we do anything. Their national and regional interests are actually directly threatened." It was a way of saying: hey, there are plenty of better actors to ask this Syria question to before you'd think of demanding something vaguely from the US. And then the rest of my response was a way of saying: hey, there are plenty of non-military things to consider and maybe do to varying degrees. Plenty of indirect actions to take to work to contain a conflict that has always only indirectly involved us.

      It would also be insane for the US to do anything directly and involving the military unless several high-profile and powerful actors and organizations in the area itself were vociferously and publicly calling for our involvement.

    2. TG Chicago: What a novel idea. Have a plan first. Know our goal. Only then proceed.

      Syria could very well be just the face of others behind the curtain ... Iran, Russia, and China. Then what? A world war leading to mutual annihilation? Human misery is horrible to see, but world war would be worse.

  4. What should we do? Have we not learned from the past 60 something years yet the futility of getting involved in the internal politics of countries in that part of the world? Here's what we should do: nothing. Syria is not our problem.

  5. TG Chicago -

    I actually agree with you. Note I said IF there are other military options. Perhaps I should have placed more emphasis on the "if"; I don't assume there are viable military options that would ease human suffering but avoid military quagmire with clear, definable goals.

    It's a messed up region that is a subset of a messed up planet. The U.S. Army can't solve all the world's problems at gunpoint.

  6. As little as possible, apart from humanitarian aid. There are no "good guys"--or at least none who are likely to prevail.

  7. I guess I start answering this question by thinking what the goals of US foreign policy should be generally. I think progressives should advance an international community where the exercise of power is constrained by and embedded within liberal institutions and liberal norms.

    So, while we might be ok with not everyone being a liberal democracy, and will deal with and accept the legitimacy of the House of Saud and the CCP and the Russian Deep State, we should seek to instantiate at least certain minimums for how rulers interact with the ruled.

    For example, as Fred Kaplan persuasively wrote over the weekend, the United States has an interest in ensuring that the taboo against the state's use of chemical weapons in use is not obliterated. To me, protection of this norm in itself justifies some action.

    Also, important American allies have an interest in intervention. Our traditional allies (Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan)want to push back on the Iran-Syria axis. Obama has sought to foster closer relations to Turkey, which has an interest in making sure the flood of weapons and general chaos doesn't spill over the border.

    Given all this, I think the right course is to have the United States, in coordination with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and NATO, use its air power to cripple the Syrian military, reduce the flow of arms from Iran and Russia, and allow forces on the ground work out the endgame (presumably with jockeying among Turkey and the Gulf monarchies for influence over the precise result).

    I think the interests I've outlined justify this limited approach, along the lines of the intervention in Libya, and to some extent of Kosovo. I'm not sure if there's any appetite among NATO to provide peacekeepers; probably not. The sad fact is that even after this intervention, Syria will not be at rest or peaceful. It will remain chaotic and will have some unsavory aftershock effects, like Libya today. But I think this course of action allows the US to protect its interests (intl norm against use of chemical weapons, maintaining/enhancing important alliances) and may even jolt Assad or the Syrian elite into suing for some sort of settlement.

    1. I should add that I hope any military action is taken after consulting the US Congress. But Libya doesn't provide good precedent in this regard, and I'm not hopeful. I think Congressional support is attainable, and a bipartisan group of Senators voicing support for the use of American air power in Syria might assuage a skeptical American public.

    2. Hasn't the US or other arms producers sold Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other allies of ours in the Middle East plenty of aircraft over the years. I think you're making a rational and fairly cautious case, but why must it be US soldiers and aircraft? These other much more closely involved countries have militaries and supplies, and we could even provide further funds to them (especially Turkey) to even further facilitate this.

    3. "For example, as Fred Kaplan persuasively wrote over the weekend, the United States has an interest in ensuring that the taboo against the state's use of chemical weapons in use is not obliterated. To me, protection of this norm in itself justifies some action."

      I find this a dangerous road to go down. I mean, if you're saying that the price for using chemical weapons is that we lob a few missiles at them and that's that... well, that's one thing. But if Assad weathers the missiles and keeps fighting, then what?

      If we're saying that the price of using chemical weapons is that you get some missiles launched your direction, then that's not necessarily such a huge deterrent.

      It's very easy to imagine a scenario in which we "punish" Syria for using chemical weapons (missiles, airstrikes), but that punishment doesn't lead to Assad's ouster. And you know exactly what happens then: the cries grow louder for further involvement.

      So what's the minimum we're willing to accept if we start launching missiles (or using air power, which of course runs the risk of losing pilots or getting them captured)?

      It's easy to say "let's take this small measure", but if it doesn't take out Assad, what then?

    4. I want to be clear that regime change is not necessarily the goal of the approach I'm advocating.

      In my view, taking military action against Assad's regime in reaction to the use of chemical weapons against his people puts future actors facing rebellion on notice that the international community will not tolerate certain acts. I think that signal in and of itself is important enough to justify direct action, but it is certainly reasonable to disagree.

      The argument seems to be that any military commitment regarding Syria runs the risk of escalation, particularly in the absence of well-defined goals. I think the goal of a limited American engagement would be the protection of the Syrian population from a regime that has shown it is willing to use terrible weapons against it. This would be accomplished by decimating the Syrian military until either 1) the Syrian regime agrees to some settlement or 2) the regime was weakened to such a point that forces on the ground (ie Syrian rebel groups) were able to defeat it. It is important that the US not be responsible for the aftermath, which would be determined by the relative power of internal Syrian forces and presumably the machinations of regional powers with a greater stake in the outcome.

      The great risk of this course of action is that Islamists among the Syrian rebels come to power. However, the Islamists are already gaining relative power among the rebels because they have the network of arms suppliers sufficient to fight the arms supplied the Syrian military through Russia and Iran. NATO action against the Syrian regime might soften Russian support, and taking out much of the Syrian military would reduce Iran's influence in the country.

  8. Your question raises an interesting point. At least according to the global firepower rankings, the Syria's military is weaker at Rank 39 than Saudi Arabia's (27) and than Turkey's (11). Looking at that, if the Gulf monarchies and Turkey want to hit back at Iran/make sure the violence doesn't destabilize the region, why don't they just take action?

    One of the arguments for an American role in Libyan intervention, even though we were more reluctant to involve ourselves than the Arab League or Britain and France, was that although those actors had the equipment, troops, and training to wage the war, they would not be able to do so as aggressively and effectively as the US with its unique military capabilities and expertise, such as our cruise missiles and especially our recon and surveillance systems that are crucial in coalition warfare.

    I think the fact that other countries have an interest in the Syrian endgame that might outweigh our own is an argument for limiting American engagement in any intervention. I also think that the fact that this intervention will presumably have the legitimacy of multilateral action should not substitute for consulting with Congress, as Secretary Clinton hinted at in the run-up to the Libyan intervention. But I do think that any successful coalition action in Syria will necessitate at least some active American involvement, however limited.

  9. Analysts' go-to analogies between US actions in Kosovo 1998-1999 and prospective ones in Syria today are disconcerting. Whatever you think of the former (which liberal interventionists loved), the Syrian situation clearly seems more intractable, less legible, and less, if at all, "our problem." But yes, let's barrel ahead, think-tankers, op-ed-ers, and senators! And hey, let's throw in the ol' "credibility" line. Those sorts of arguments always lead down good historical paths.

  10. I'm fine with an extensive bombing run from the air in order to make our point against the regime. But that's about it. Long term, organized economic sanctions that turn Syria into Iran too.

  11. I wish I knew.

    Some combination of "nothing" and "humanitarian aid." I can't come up with a scenario where a no-fly zone would work; I think that either side winning sooner is better than this thing dragging out, but IMPOSING a solution does little good, and it'll just end up blowing up again. So, I think that we let Turkey deal with it (NOT Israel, as that really just makes a lot of stuff worse), and try to help set up decent, livable refugee camps in Turkey.

  12. Do nothing. What do we have to gain? American involvement is unlikely to improve the humanitarian situation and guaranteed to make more enemies for our country.

    This is also a good time to rethink our antiquated cold war alliance system. If Turkey gets dragged into this and calls upon its NATO allies, do we really want to send US servicemen into battle on the Aleppo front? Does our alliance with Turkey really enhance US security, or does it only expose us to regional power struggles and senseless bloodshed that have nothing to do with peace on our own shores.

    Maybe we should also question our petroleum-related alliances (which is what really sets the terms for our relationship with the Assad regime). Does it really matter if we buy oil from a Sunni-dominated Gulf or a Shiite-dominated Gulf? They're all thuggish regimes that treat their people horribly -- why should we care who calls the shots? Maybe I'm being a bit simplistic, but it's times like this when we should take the opportunity to question everything.

  13. Do nothing. We can't and shouldn't try to police the world. It's not as though the anti-Assad forces are our friends anyway. Plus, I haven't really heard anyone articulate any actual goal of an invasion.


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