The Syrian Catch-22

I understand the knee jerk reaction to the debate on Syria. On paper it is a situation very similar to Iraq–Use and ownership of WMD beckons the U.S. to swoop in and police the situation.

But this situation is entirely different from Iraq. The U.S. does not have the foreign or domestic support to do a prolonged campaign that involves ground forces or even sustained air attacks, nor does the Obama administration have any desire to do such.  Syria is the Middle East’s worst humanitarian crisis in a generation. With 100K+ dead from the civil war and tens of thousands ending up in refugee camps, there is a real concern that this conflict on its own could destabilize the region. And the evidence of a chemical attack carried out by the Assad regime is a much stronger case than what Iraq had. The U.S. also didn’t specifically supply these stocks like we did in Iraq in the 80’s. If this were 2003, Syria would have been a textbook WMD case for the Bush administration.

Military action from the U.S. would be less intense than what NATO did to Gaddafi in Libya. Maybe a few fuel and ammo depots or an air base. But we can’t  hit so hard that the Assad regime crumbles. Syria has become a breeding ground for extremism the way that we feared Libya would become. Al Qaeda affiliated rebel groups fight as well as dozens of others with various political and social goals. Wiping out Assad would create a vacuum and power grab that is entirely unpredictable. Imagine a less stable Libya with less political cohesion and chemical weapon caches up for grabs. Military action in Syria by default falls to a slap on the wrist for using chemical weapons.

What U.S. action would not mean is military escalation with China or Russia. Russia and China don’t support any coalition or strikes because they too have dissidents in their own countries whom they must frequently crackdown on. But a global war brought on by military posturing  would destroy the world’s already shaky economic ground and peace, and for what? A principled stand on authoritarian sovereignty? Not going to happen.

What this amounts to is a catch-22. All of our options on the table are quite possibly worse than the current situation, which itself is unsustainable. If Assad falls, the region could destabilize and require an occupational coalition to prevent Syria becoming a failed state. No one wants that responsibility. But as long as Assad is in power, more tens of thousands civilians will die. The only hope for resolution seems to be letting the war grind to a stale mate–to the point that the Assad regime finds the cost for continuing to crackdown is unsustainable for his credibility and power. As of right now, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the international community who has a wildly different opinion.

Even though President Obama had the clear precedence to launch the military action he and  his advisers are planning, it was a political stroke of genius to send that decision to congress. It entirely takes the pressure off the executive for having to make a publicly unpopular choice, forces congress to do the talk and walk for chemical weapons deterrence, and sets new precedent for constitutionally minded military action regarding the need for Congressional authorization.

The votes aren’t there in Congress for military action. Obama may try to rally support for it or make a big speech, but in the end it is unlikely to add up unless something more dramatic happens in Syria. The political cost for him advocating action will be vastly limited because of the decision resting on congress. And Obama would be foolish to act anyway in defiance of them now.

The amazing thing about the past few weeks is the amount of discussion and hesitation that was sorely needed when Iraq was building up. Even though the airstrikes planned would likely be limited, the majority of pundits, politicians, and the public are against it. This nation is suffering from war fatigue and a skepticism of leadership that failed us during Iraq, so unfathomable after Vietnam just 30 years before. The harsh push back is precisely what this country needs. War of any scale is a last resort and for defense. For us to decide otherwise requires a lot more out of Syria than a small uptick in fatalities deemed worse only because of the weapons used.

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