Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What about Syria?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Attributed to Edmund Burke.)

We have seen unspeakable evil in the case of the Syrian regime’s use of nerve gas on children and non-combatants. Secretary of State John Kerry did not overstate the case when he said it was “a moral obscenity.”

As a general principle, little is gained from comparisons to Hitler. On the other hand, the use of Zyklon B, the murder of children, and the totalitarian regime are fresh – and painful – in our memory. And so is the reluctance of the world to confront the evil of Nazism.

All wars are tragic, and the Syrian civil war seems to be especially so. According to various opposition activist groups, between 80,350 and 106,425 people have been killed, of which about half were civilians. According to the U.N., about 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and 1.8 million have fled to other countries. This is in a country of 22 ½ million people.

President Obama has said that the use of gas warfare would cross a “red line.” There is no doubt that nerve gas has been used, nor that the Assad regime is responsible. There is some evidence  that the use of chemical weapons may have been the work of a General who over-stepped his authority. A more likely suspect is Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Maher is the commander of its most formidable military division.

Doubters of the responsibility of the Assad regime ask “Why would he invite United Nations chemical weapons inspectors to Syria, then launch a chemical weapons attack against women and children on the very day they arrive, just miles from where they are staying?” Since I am convinced that the Syrian regime is in fact responsible for the nerve gas attack, the question is not rhetorical, and, indeed, it demands an answer.

The only answer that makes sense to me is that Assad made the calculation that America and her allies did not have the stomach to oppose this heinous violation of international law. He wanted to test this proposition with the hope that the answer would be demoralizing to the opposition. Was he correct in his calculus?

Basta! Something must be done! The question is, “What to do?”

Congress is in recess now, but the President has the power to call them back into session. It is fundamentally the power of Congress to declare war. Though this should be a completely non-partisan issue, the current Congress is so intractably anti-Obama that it cannot be counted upon to do the right thing. I would like the President to be able to share the responsibility for his decision with the elected officials and political leaders of our country, but is there any reason to believe that Republicans can act responsibly?

Of course, it’s theoretically possible that the President can get commitments from the Republican leadership in Congress before he calls them back into session, so that he doesn't have to risk embarrassment. However, the rumblings from people like Senator John McCain don’t inspire confidence in this regard.

Unfortunately, whatever is done in Syria will be a tough slog, and the sight of a potential quagmire for the President is too tempting for Republicans, who routinely talk about shutting down the government, defaulting on our debt, and de-funding every program aimed at helping people to improve their lot in life. The President wanted to make America great again after the destruction brought about by the George W. Bush administration, and Republicans openly declared that they wanted him to fail.

History, or fate, has cast this President in the role of a great leader, and now he must lead. Let him be mindful that President Clinton’s biggest regret of his presidency is that 1,000,000 people were slaughtered with machetes and US never intervened.

Some will say, with considerable justification, that this is a matter for the United Nations. The problem is that in the U.N., it is the Security Council that has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Russian Republic has a veto in the Security Council and therefore, it is inconceivable that anything positive will come out of it with regards to Syria. If, as I hope, the U.S. can play a constructive role in the resolution of this “Problem from Hell,” then it is possible that Arabs at some future time will recognize that Russia is indifferent to their slaughter, while America took a moral stand, backed by action, to oppose tyranny.

Perhaps the U.N. General Assembly will provide a forum in which the U.S. can lay out its case that the Syrian regime is responsible for a nerve gas attack on non-combatants. Oh, if only George W. Bush had not squandered our credibility!

Still, the U.N. has another role to play in this matter. At the time of this writing, U.N. inspectors are in Syria seeking definitive evidence that nerve gas was used. There are still doubters, encouraged in their doubt by the Russians, and waiting a matter of days to get their report makes sense. For one thing, when (not “if” but “when”) opponents of our President accuse him of jumping the gun, so to speak, it will be nice to have the cover of the U.N. inspectors’ report.

These inspectors have been fired at, and the area they are inspecting has been contaminated with conventional weapons making their task more difficult, but not impossible. In any event, they will not pass an opinion regarding responsibility. Rather they will answer the somewhat straight-forward question of whether or not Serin has been used.

Although the U.N. is not capable of giving international cover to an intervention in Syria, it is important that the U.S. does not act alone. France has announced that it is ready to take action in response to the egregious violation of international law. In Great Britain, the PM has called Parliament into session and it is debating military action in Syria. The task of assembling an international coalition is not done, but it is off to a good start.

Syria’s main allies are Russia and Iran. The Russians maintain a naval facility in Tartus  It is the last Russian military facility outside the former Soviet Union, and its only Mediterranean repair and replenishment spot, sparing Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits. This is of strategic importance to the Russians, and any action by the Americans must not directly threaten Russian access to the Med. This is a serious limitation on the range of American choices.

Russia has another interest in Syria. An attack by the U.S. will most likely involve cruise missiles, drones, and aircraft. The Syrian air-defenses will have to be neutralized. These defenses are supplied by the Russians, and it will be a definitive test of their capabilities. My gut tells me that the Russians are not eager to see the results of this test.

Nor are the Iranians, who also have Russian air defenses.

I have said before that Assad made the calculation that America and her allies did not have the stomach to oppose this heinous violation of international law. It makes sense to me that the Iranians encouraged Assad to test this proposition. This is a crucial point, because if my speculation is correct, Iran wants to know the answer as it contemplates is choices with respect to developing nuclear weapons. And even if I am wrong about Iran encouraging Syria to use nerve gas, still it must know that America is not paralyzed in the face of evil, even nuclear threats.

The Washington Post reports that according to Israeli officials and retired officers who serve as military analysts there, the general consensus in the country’s intelligence community is that Syria will not strike against Israel in retaliation for a U.S. launch of cruise missiles. The paper points out that Israeli warplanes have bombed Syria twice so far this year, in January and May, apparently in an attempt to stop the transfer of weapons from inside Syria to Hezbollah outposts in Lebanon. Neither attack provoked a response from Syria.

However, there is a long term risk to Israel and to the U.S. that comes from degrading the capabilities of the Assad regime. Nature abhors a vacuum, and never more so than when it is a vacuum of power.

If the U.S. and her allies intervene in Syria, what will a post intervention Syria look like? Again, quoting from the Washington Post:
“The one thing we should learn is you can’t get a little bit pregnant,” said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was at the helm of U.S. Central Command when the Pentagon launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.”
If Allied intervention triggers more brutal attacks by the regime, then our intervention will have been a failure. Therefore, it may seem that our response must be robust enough to prevent an escalation of the regime’s war crimes.

On the other hand, there is a risk that by degrading Assad’s military capability we may be strengthening rebel factions aligned with al-Qaeda, and so, our response must be sufficiently restrained. It’s a difficult balance, to put it mildly. The Obama administration has already announced that any proposed reaction will not be about regime change.

Basically, it boils down to this. What we want in Syria is a stale-mate in the civil war, during which both sides lose blood and treasure. At the conclusion, both sides will be too tired, poor, or degraded to do any further mischief. Shed no tears for the opponents of Assad: they are self-proclaimed enemies of America, of Israel, and of democracy.

In the meantime, the U.S. and our allies need to supply – in a very big way – humanitarian support for the civilians and refugees affected by the war. It is fair to assume that nothing we can do will win favor with the jihadist components of the opposition, and we don’t want to be associated with the tyrant, Assad. But there is a hope that we can go over the heads of the combatants and reach the average Syrian. It is even possible that Israel can play a role in providing humanitarian aid.

I believe in the idea of democracy, and I believe that the arc of history bends in that direction. But there is more to democracy than elections. There must also be open debate, free speech, a right to petition the government, a rule of law, etc.

The question is, how can Syria move from where it is now to that blessed place where democracy can flourish? We need to find a way.

To do so, we must understand that for the time being, Syria will require an autocratic ruler who has the strength and the disposition to oppose the Islamists. America needs to identify and support such a leader, and then gradually groom him to become a father of democracy.

What I have laid out here is an ambitious program, but the reasons stated justify the necessity of undertaking it. Besides, what choice do we have?

Please join me in wishing the President great success and wisdom in facing these challenges.

“… and tell ‘em Big Mitch sent ya!”