Why We Should Stay Out of Syria

Sometimes leadership lies in knowing what not to do—and then not doing it.

The downside of winning a war is that it makes the next one more alluring. Defeating Serbia in Kosovo paved the way for invading Afghanistan. Our early success there made Iraq look as though it would be a cakewalk. Our 2011 victory in Libya is an invitation to plunge into Syria.

The temptation is easy to understand in this case. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has been practically daring the international community to bring it on, most recently by presiding over a slaughter of more than 100 people, including entire families shot to death execution-style.

On Tuesday, Syrian diplomats in one Western capital after another were ordered to leave, and United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan warned, "We are at a tipping point." Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that "the military option should be considered." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., urged the imposition of a no-fly, no-drive zone to protect the opposition.

Mitt Romney is edging in the same direction. He issued a statement faulting "President Obama's lack of leadership" and demanding "more assertive measures to end the Assad regime." He called on Obama to "work with partners to arm the opposition"—even though, according to The Washington Post, the president has already done that.

The administration is so far resisting the call to enter the fight. UN ambassador Susan Rice has said that outside military action carries "a risk it ends in more violence." NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder has said the alliance has no plans to use force.

Good call. Noble intentions are no substitute for feasible options. And Syria would be a much riskier and more formidable undertaking than the effort to vanquish Moammar Gadhafi.

That's the view of Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago and author of the 1996 volume "Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War." Pape, unlike me, favored the Libya operation. But he thinks it bears scant resemblance to what we face in Syria.

In Libya, the insurgents had broad popular support and a geographic base from which to fight the regime. The U.S. didn't agree to intervene until after the opposition had gained control of large chunks of territory, including most of the country's main cities and towns. To defeat the rebels, Gadhafi's army had to pass over long stretches of desert road, where its tanks and trucks were easy prey for NATO missiles. "They were almost perfect conditions for the use of air power," Pape told me.

But Syria is not so congenial. To start with, the insurgents have attracted much less active support, and their sympathizers are scattered. "Here, there is not even a whole city, much less a medium-sized region, that we could work with to build a defensible area," Pape said. An outside force would have to capture a chunk of territory, which is a much harder—and bloodier—assignment than safeguarding an established zone.

Air power is generally unavailing in situations where government loyalists and rebels are cheek by jowl on the ground and devilishly hard to distinguish from cloud level. In that situation, ground forces are the way to go, but it would involve the likelihood of significant American casualties.

That prospect is a big deterrent, and it ought to be. One reason Obama got little pushback at home on Libya was that we didn't lose a single soldier. Syria would be different—more like the invasion of Afghanistan. We might prevail, but at a much higher price than in Libya and only if we were willing to stay on indefinitely.

One reason the cost would escalate, said Pape, is that our invasion would look suspiciously like an act of conquest rather than altruism. After all, Syria has long been at odds with its neighbor, Israel, which happens to be our close ally.

We may regard the two countries as largely separate issues, but Syrians would suspect NATO forces of doing the dirty work of the hated Zionist entity. They would be encouraged in that notion by the mullahs in Tehran—who would regard the Syria operation as a prelude to an attack on Iran and strive to help Assad.

Critics demand that Obama show "leadership" by doing something to help Syria's civilians. But sometimes leadership lies in knowing what not to do—and then not doing it.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman

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  • fried wylie||

    Why We Should Stay Out of Syria

    Because Fuck You, that's why.

  • WTF||

    I think you just gave their rationale for getting into Syria.

  • fried wylie||

    I was trying to use language they understand to explain why they are not allowed to waste more lives and resources not-defending us.

  • perlhaqr||

    Bring the troops home from Afghanistan!

    And then send 'em to Syria, because now it's our guy in charge!

  • NotSure||

    I would like to know where in the NATO treaties it states that NATO exists to attack countries that it thinks are human rights violaters. Secondly I would like to see in the US constitution where it says that the American military has an obligation to attack countries committing human rights violations ?

    Speaking of Libya the news from most media on Libya has vanished, is it because the place has suddenly entered a golden era ? Clearly not, since if it did all the media who supported attacking Libya would be writing about it. The lack of news from Libya is the simple fact that the place is not better, if not worse, than before.

  • wareagle||

    I think fried wylie provided the rationale for that already -

  • DJF||

    The way I read the NATO treaty it says that they can't do anything without being attacked or without the UN giving permission. And then they need all members of NATO to agree. Without that permission from the UN and all the NATO members then only individual countries can do something but without NATO.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Considering the Syrian opposition sympathizes, if not subscribes to the ideological positions of Hizb ut-Tahrir, it would be political and diplomatic genius for us to support them.

    Genius, I tell you!

  • BakedPenguin||

    We supported the Saudi "royals," and they spread Wahhabism across the Islamic world.
    We supported the Shah over a (admittedly socialist) secular elected leader, and the Shah's oppression lead to Iran's Islamic Revolution.
    We supported the Taliban when they were fighting the Russians.

    something something Santayana quote something.

  • Pro Libertate||

    "Oye Como Va?"

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    Oye Vey?

  • BakedPenguin||

    That or something else off Abraxas, anyway.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Those who cannot remember the album are condemned to repeat it.

  • BakedPenguin||

    +1

  • BarryD||

    Also, those who don't know Spanish. They tend to just repeat "Oye Como Va" or "La Bamba" or whatever, to the music, at least after a few stiff drinks.

  • John||

    Either invade and sort the place out from the ground up like we did in Iraq or stay out of it. The worst option would be to half ass it and just randomly bomb a few people. I have complete faith that Obama will choose the worst option available.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    I don't know. Syria is just small enough to turn it all into glass with our remaining arsenal.

    Unfortunately, some might consider that inhumane.

  • some guy||

    Inhumane? We'd be cutting their health care costs and drug abuse rates to record lows. I thought that could be used to justify anything!

  • CatoTheElder||

    Assad kills whole families of suspected opponents execution style.

    Obama kills whole families of suspected opponents drone style.

    Ain't technology great!

  • WTF||

    But it's totally different, because Obama isn't a nasty dictator, or something..

  • ||

    ^^^^THIS.

    Sincerely,
    Most of my liberal friends

  • BarryD||

    I think we should consider a separate branch of the US armed forces, like the "Go into places where bad stuff is happening that might warrant military action but can't be justified as national defense in any rational way Force." Instead of falling under DoD, they'd fall under, I don't know, the Peace Corps or something. Make it an autonomous, all-volunteer force, of course.

    I can't see how it's morally justifiable to send someone who has enlisted in, say, the Army, out of a desire to help defend the USA, to Syria. But if someone wants to sign up for the Go into places where bad stuff is happening that might warrant military action but can't be justified as national defense in any rational way Force, that opportunity should, perhaps, be made available on a voluntary basis.

    Think we'd have a flood of volunteers?

  • LTC John||

    A quasi-Foreign Legion?

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    We'll call them "Crusaders", :)

  • BarryD||

    We might just as well, and beat the rest of the world to the punch.

  • BarryD||

    Oh yeah! I forgot! They get to wear unusual hats. That's the whole key. The hats.

  • LTC John||

    And have wine, a traveling caravan of "camp followers'... Alors! Sign me up.

  • some guy||

    Fedoras maybe, since berets are already taken?

  • R C Dean||

    BarryD, as long as it was privately financed, I would wholeheartedly support it.

  • BarryD||

    Letters of Marque and Reprisal would be good. We would need to extend them past the captains of ships, and include aircraft, and perhaps private tanks. Private ICBMs have potential, and would provide an income source for former Cold War foes from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

    I can see some potential problems with this, but none of them outweigh the serious FUN it would be. Let's roll!

  • LTC John||

    Private tanks....sponsored like NASCAR!

  • BarryD||

    The VIAGRA tank is even with the 5 HOUR ENERGY tank, as they enter the final turn to see who gets the loot this time!

  • perlhaqr||

    I don't know if that would work so well. The "Home Depot" Abrams would be like, anti-camouflaged.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    Why We Should Stay Out of Syria

    The same reason I don't go try and take down a wasps nest in a field I rarely travel.

  • ChrisO||

    The question reminds me of something like "why I should not stab myself in the arm."

  • LTC John||

    "We may regard the two countries as largely separate issues, but Syrians would suspect NATO forces of doing the dirty work of the hated Zionist entity."

    - Na'am! We'd rather be killed by Assad than get your help, dirty Crusader-Zionist!!1!1

    "They would be encouraged in that notion by the mullahs in Tehran—who would regard the Syria operation as a prelude to an attack on Iran and strive to help Assad."

    Oh, they are not striving "to help Assad" now?

    Some of your earlier reasons are much stronger than those two seemingly thrown in, off-the-cuff ones...

  • Mike M.||

    Note how Chapman neatly and succinctly articulates the predominant liberal attitude towards war, which in a nutshell is: "War is fine when we're in charge calling the shots, and we can easily slaughter the enemy without putting any of our people in danger."

    It's the exact same argument guys like MNG would routinely make in the comments, though Chapman dresses it up with a patina of intellectualism.

    I will grant that it's ruthlessly pragmatic, but as a moral philosophy it sure as hell leaves a lot to be desired.

  • John||

    The idea that you can judge the rightness of a war inversely by the by the number of US casualties to be particularly loathsome. If a cause is not worth dying for, it is not worth killing for.

  • anon||

    War doesn't determine who's right, only who's left.

  • John||

    No one says it does. You can be right and still lose a war.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    *crickets*

    sorry anon, John didn't take his subtlety pills today.

  • BarryD||

    He has those?

  • BarryD||

    Since a war involves killing people, and dying, and these are OTHER people who don't have the final say about whether or not they're sent to war, or killed by us, then if you know you can't win a war, how is it moral to fight it?

  • Mike M.||

    I agree. It takes a pretty sick kind of mentality to believe that the justness and morality of a war is primarily determined by the likely kill ratio.

  • BarryD||

    And it takes a pretty naive kind of mentality to believe that war can possibly involve no moral ambiguity, and that we should send our military into a situation where they are likely to get killed, with dubious possibility for success.

    That's what we're talking about, here: the question of whether we send our young men and women in uniform to get themselves killed. That's not something to be decided based on a fairy-tale understanding of reality.

  • BarryD||

    True enough.

    OTOH routinely sending a lot of American lives down a rat hole because we takes sides in a fight that isn't ours, in a place we don't understand, just because that's what we do, isn't much of a moral philosophy, either.

  • R C Dean||

    I will grant that it's ruthlessly pragmatic, but as a moral philosophy it sure as hell leaves a lot to be desired.

    My point exactly, when MNG would try to argue that our "fierce moral urgency" for the Libyan intervention somehow evaporated in situations with higher body counts, just because it would be harder.

  • anon||

    Good to see we're right on schedule for going to war with Syria. Maybe we'll fit North Korea in before Iran, but I think Iran will just get bumped up in the queue.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    Is it just me, or does CNN really really want us to invade Syria? Their coverage just seems like outright propaganda to me.

  • BarryD||

    CNN's entire success over the past 20 years was built on the foundation of its live Iraq War I coverage (which at the time certainly was riveting, and revolutionary). CNN has lost status, since. Can you blame them for wanting the opportunity to regain their position as the 24 Hour War Network?

  • ||

    The first time I noticed CNN was when Skylab fell from orbit...

    The second time was when the first space shuttle blew up.

    CNN needs more space disasters.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    CNN needs more space disasters.

    Shuttle burning up on re-entry as well.

    Since the space program is no longer manned, CNN is going to have to look for other disasters. War fits that bill pretty well.

  • 35N4P2BYY||

    To be fair, very few if any, of the "space" disasters where anyone acutally died, happened outside of the atmosphere of our planet. Turns out that getting there and getting back are the tricky bits of the processes.

  • ||

    Putting aside whether or not it was a good idea, Iraq was a "cakewalk." The difficult and particularly stupid part was occupying it afterwards. Afghanistan as well.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    We're good at war. Still suck at government building.

  • BarryD||

    We're pretty good at building a sucky government, though.

  • ||

    Syrians sure like denim.

    Weird how California Miner's pants from 150 years ago ended up in the modern day execution fields of Syria.

  • perlhaqr||

    Stock photo. Those are actually Mexicans.

  • 35N4P2BYY||

    Quick! We need a picture of dead brown people!

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I wouldn't mind seeing us go into Syria, or Iran, or any one of dozens of pest holes if I thought we were doing it to some purpose. Conquest, in the Victorian British Colonialism style, for instance. Or an in-and-out strike on scummy leadership, followed by a stance of "Rule yourselves, but don't pester us again or we're coming back."

    The only States in that area that I wouldn't want to see treated to either are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel because, all whining about the Palestinians to the contrary, they aren't doing that badly. The Saudis because if we attack them, we win, and if we win then WE get to administer the Hadj; a fate I wouldn't wish on North Korea.

    Unfortunately, if we invade a country and depose its ruling scum, we will almost certainly hang around to 'nation build', which is a fool's errand. We lack the hard headedness to say "Do it our way, dammit." or to say "You keep bothering us, so here's a bomb in the seat of your pants, and maybe your successor will know better than to pick fights with the Grizzly.

  • sweeterjan||

    Print|Email
    Why We Should Stay Out of Syria
    Sometimes leadership lies in knowing what not to do—and then not doing it.

    Steve Chapman | May 31, 2012

    The downside of winning a war is that it makes the next one more alluring. Defeating Serbia in Kosovo paved the way for invading Afghanistan. Our early success there made Iraq look as though it would be a cakewalk. Our 2011 victory in Libya is an invitation to plunge into Syria.

    The temptation is easy to understand in this case. Syrian dictator http://www.lunettesporto.com/l.....c-3_4.html Bashar Assad has been practically daring the international community to bring it on, most recently by presiding over a slaughter of more than 100 people, including entire families shot to death execution-style.

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