It’s really nice that everybody is all worried about Syria now, at least for the next five minutes, because Bashar Assad decided to take a break from killing his people in other ghastly ways to gas them. It’s all very shocking—if you haven’t been paying any attention to Syria for the past six years.
Yes, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley was terrific as she stared down the Russian ambassador at the UN and laid out the facts about how Russia and Iran are supporting this horrible slaughter.
It was even better than the speech Haley’s predecessor gave last year under the previous administration. But as Barack Obama demonstrated for his entire presidency, an impassioned speech by a diplomat doesn’t mean much if the commander in chief doesn’t really want to do anything.
This recent moment of concern is perverse on a number of different levels: because we suddenly care about humanitarianism now after watching Syria burn for six years, and because we’re probably going to continue to watch it burn while we continue to talk about how much we care. But the most dangerously perverse part is that we shouldn’t need humanitarian prompting to care about what’s happening in Syria. We should care because we’re terrified of the implications for our own interests and security.
If Syria seems too far away, too brutal, too primitive, too wrapped up in its own internal strife between equally unappealing factions—well, that’s exactly what I thought about another conflict a few years back. It was the mid-1990s, and the conflict was in Afghanistan. And that part about how this was irrelevant to American interests? That didn’t end well.
It turned out that the chaos in Afghanistan was not so remote as to be none of our business, because it provided a breeding ground, safe haven, and international recruiting program for terrorists who wanted to attack the United States. We found that out on September 11. Well, actually, we found it out before then, when al-Qaeda staged big attacks on U.S. citizens and assets in East Africa and Yemen. But it took September 11 to make the threat undeniable.
We were supposed to learn a lesson from that. But then the war in Iraq was longer and more difficult than people were prepared for, and America regressed into a new Vietnam Syndrome. So here we are, 16 years later, sitting back and watching the Islamists recreate exactly the same conditions. There is a zone of constant warfare and chaos that allows terrorists to establish themselves. There is a new safe haven where a brutal terrorist group seizes state power, or quasi-state power, and puts themselves forward as a champion of Islam and a model of successful jihad. They call on supporters from around the world to rally to their banner, and then they support or incite terrorist attacks back home in the West—in Paris, in Brussels, in Sydney, in San Bernardino, and Orlando.
The Islamic State in Syria is a pretty obvious replay of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. I don’t see how we can expect a fundamentally different result.
Under the previous administration, and so far under the current one, we’ve followed the theory that we can offload Syria to the Russians. It will be their problem, and they will fight the Islamic State for us. Yet the Assad regime hasn’t been all that effective at fighting the Islamic State. It’s a lot more interested in gassing kids.
My Federalist colleague Sean Davis puts forward a list of questions for advocates of intervention in Syria. But the only really important question is his first one: What national security interest is at stake in Syria? The answer is pretty obvious. The national security interest is in preventing the Paris attacks from happening in New York City. Is that not clear enough?
When you put it that way, this first question becomes the only really important question. The rest are necessary and very thorny and difficult. But once we decide that that we have a substantial national security interest in the destruction of ISIS, and that this requires putting an end to Syria’s civil war, then we’re going to iron out the rest of the details because we really don’t have much choice.
We can offer a lot of theories for how these various issues are going to work out. For example, when it comes to pushing the Russians out of Syria now that they’re ensconced there, there’s a straightforward model for that: Afghanistan. Of course we shouldn’t challenge the Russkis directly, because that would risk escalation into a great power war. But we can give very substantial covert support to select groups of rebels—far more than the half-hearted, going-through-the-motions efforts so far—and make Syria a quagmire the Russians can’t sustain. Russia is a shrunken shadow of the Soviet Union and in far less of a position to maintain a serious effort in Syria over the long term.
As for our overall strategic goal, we have to keep in mind that this is a two-front war, that we’re fighting Assad and pushing out the Russians and Iranians in order to clear the way for also getting rid of the Islamic State. The model for that, as I’ve pointed out before, is the question of whether we should fight the Nazis or the Soviets. It’s not really a question of which one we have to fight, but of which one we’re going to fight first.
How long will it take and how much will it cost? We can make guesses, but it would be foolish to assume that anyone can give definitive answers, because that’s not how war works. Of course we don’t know for sure how long it’s going to take, or what it’s going to cost, or who our allies are going to be, or how we’ll put together a new government. Those are objections that can be made with equal force to just about any military intervention, and making such objections the centerpiece of foreign policy would result in a non-interventionism so thorough as to be pacifist.
Do advocates of intervention have to answer all of these question before “it makes sense to discuss the idea further”? You know, I’d be happy if we were discussing it at all, because that would be an upgrade from ignoring it completely.
The fact is that we interventionists have been discussing this. These are all precisely the issues a lot of us have been writing about for years as the disaster in Syria was unfolding. I’ve written dozens of articles over the past 15 years offering advice on what to do about Syria and Iraq—literally, an article I wrote in 2014 was titled “What to Do About Syria and Iraq.” Other writers, specialists with more knowledge than I, have spilled even more ink on these topics. So you’ll have to pardon our impatience when we hear someone say that there’s no point in even talking about this until we lay out yet another detailed plan so everyone can ignore it.
My experience has been that the part about not wanting to discuss Syria further is the one constant in all of these discussions, and calls for more details are generally an exercise in rummaging around for excuses to do nothing. I recognize the pattern very well. It’s what we spent a lot of the late 1990s doing. Like I said, that didn’t turn out well.
The threat in Syria exists whether we recognize it or not, whether we have a strategy for it or not, whether we answer a list of questions or not. We don’t get to take a pass on this because it’s hard and there are no good answers. There are rarely good options, usually because we delay acting early on when the options were better, and instead we always seem to wait until everything has become an intractable disaster.
The first step, as they say, is recognizing that you have a problem. Recognizing the threat the Syrian civil war poses to us and the need for the United States to do something about it is the starting point for everything else. I’d be happy if we could just get through that first step.
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