There are many good reasons not to intervene in Syria.
First, contrary to what President Obama has said, the atrocities there present no security threat to the United States.
Second, U.S. intervention seems unlikely to do much good – if by “good” one means a reduction in the suffering of innocents. Unless, of course, the U.S. decides to launch a full-scale invasion followed by lengthy occupation and democratization along the lines of what America imposed on the world after WWII. Who’s up for that right now?
Anyone? Didn’t think so.
Third, and closely related to the previous reason: There are no evident good guys. It’s not as though the Syrian conflict pits a brutal dictatorship against the equivalent of the American civil-rights movement, circa 1963. The Syrian opposition is thick with al-Qaida, and one of its leaders recently denounced potential American military intervention as “satanic.” Lovely.
So, no, the case for burning up a few million dollars’ worth of
Pentagon ordnance is far from open-and-shut.
Yet President Obama seems intent on doing something – and likely would have by now, if half the country had not reminded him of what he said back in 2007: “The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Hence he is going to Congress first – though he has not said he will abide by whatever Congress decides.
So let’s assume America will take action. What sort of action should it take to do what Obama believes it must do – i.e., send a message to a dictator that the heinous crime of gassing hundreds of children to death must carry a price?
One option would be to destroy Assad's remaining stocks of chemical weapons. But those reportedly are located in civilian areas, which could lead to even more civilian deaths. Regardless, Assad could rebuild them soon enough.
Another option would be to take out some of the regime’s military facilities. Assad isn’t likely to lose much sleep over that.
We could decimate military personnel, which might cause Assad more heartburn but would involve the dubious prospect of butchering many young men who may not have done anything more than guard a supply depot. In a country where the consent of the governed is a sick joke, assigning guilt to all but those in the ruling elite is a sketchy proposition at best.
Assigning guilt to Assad, however, is emphatically not. There is no doubt whatsoever that he has massacred thousands of civilians in an effort to sustain a regime that – as reports from Human Rights Watch and Freedom House make clear – is sadistic beyond belief. If Assad is far from history’s greatest monster, that is not owing to any lack of effort on his part.
So take him out.
The most obvious advantage of killing Assad is that it would do precisely what the president wants to do: send a message that certain crimes against humanity will meet with swift punishment. Indeed, extremely personal threats might be the only sort of message that can sway the world’s despots – who, by definition, lack any concern for the welfare of those they dominate. Assassination threatens the one and only thing a tyrant cares about: himself.
From an ethical point of view, assassination is vastly superior to bombing campaigns, which end up killing many civilians no matter how carefully they are targeted. And it is also vastly superior to ground campaigns, which slaughter a lot of military conscripts who bear little if any blame for the crimes of their superiors.
From a practical perspective, the case for threatening tyrants directly can point to at least one stellar success. Whatever else one thinks about the Iraq war, this much is true: U.S. forces dragged Saddam Hussein from his hidey-hole on December 13, 2003. Six days later, Moammar Qaddafi announced that Libya would abandon all efforts at producing WMDs and long-range missiles. That was no coincidence.
True, killing Assad could have many unforeseen consequences. But the same can be said of any other form of military intervention. It also can be said of nonintervention. If the U.S. does decide to act in Syria, then taking out Assad would at least be the purest way to summon whatever unintended consequences lie in wait.
And, yes, the U.S. has a policy against assassination (last updated by Ronald Reagan, in Executive Order 12333). But President Obama already has explained why he has the legal authority to carry out extrajudicial killings of American citizens abroad. It would be absurd at this point for him to suggest non-citizen dictators deserve any better.
This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.