America Needs to Stay Out of Syria

Advocates of intervention think we couldn't make the problems of Syria worse. We could.


With the Iraq war behind us and our departure from Afghanistan underway, the United States could be entering a well-earned respite from fighting. But even before peace can take hold, hawks are singing the old country song: "I've enjoyed as much of this as I can stand."

FreedomHouse / photo on flickr

They see a way to escape in Syria, where rebels have been fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad for more than two years. For most of that time, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have been leading the call for U.S. military intervention—and President Barack Obama has been declining the invitation.

His critics, however, think they now have him where they want him. Obama earlier said that any use of chemical weapons by Assad would be a "game changer," and last week, the White House said it thinks he's used sarin gas, though it said further investigation would be needed.

Obama was careful in his Tuesday news conference to emphasize the uncertainties: "What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them."

So far he's settled for a minimalist response: possibly sending weapons to the insurgents. He added that as a result of the gas attacks, "there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider."

Strongly consider? My advice is to consider them till the cows come home—just don't actually adopt them. The options at hand are generally dangerous, ineffectual or both.

Graham says the United States has to act because "the greatest risk is a failed state with chemical weapons falling in the hands of radical Islamists." In reality, the greatest risk is putting our troops into a civil war where they could end up targeted by both sides, as we ingeniously arranged in Iraq. As we showed there, removing a dictator can unleash endless sectarian conflict. Fortunately, even McCain says he doesn't favor American boots on the ground.

The preferred instrument of hawks is air power—to enforce a no-fly zone against the regime or destroy military assets. But it's a lot easier said than done.

To begin with, Syria has one of the best air defense systems in the world, built with help from Russia. "Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frequently singles out Mr. Assad's air-defense prowess as the biggest single obstacle to U.S. intervention," reports The Wall Street Journal. Casualty-free intervention, a la Libya, is not a realistic possibility in Syria.

Taking out Assad's anti-aircraft batteries—or tanks, trucks and infantry—would inflict heavy casualties on the people we'd like to help. Much of the fighting takes place in cities, where civilians are dangerously exposed.

Even precision bombs launched from drones, notes University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape, author of "Bombing to Win," have a blast radius of up to 50 feet, and their shock waves can easily bring down neighboring buildings. Our drone strikes in rural Pakistan do enough collateral damage to sow deep anger among the locals. In urban Syria, civilian fatalities would be far higher.

U.S. bombing might backfire by inducing the regime to make full use of its chemical weapons while it can. Air power also can't head off the danger of those supplies falling into the hands of Islamic radicals. Bombing chemical weapons sites, even if we could identify them, would mean spewing deadly nerve agents over a wide area—which sort of resembles the outcome we're trying to prevent.

But securing them from militants would require ground forces—as many as 75,000, according to the Pentagon. Transporting the stockpiles out of the country or destroying them would take a lot of troops and time. "There is no exit strategy with this option either," says Michael Desch, a national security scholar at the University of Notre Dame.

Graham doesn't mention that those dangerous Islamic radicals are among the people we'd be helping. As The New York Times recently reported, "Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of." No one relishes the thought of terrorist groups getting poison gas. But that doesn't mean anyone has a good way to prevent it.

Advocates of intervention think we couldn't make the problems of Syria worse. But we could make them worse. Scarier still, we could make them ours.

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  1. Lets get rid of a murdering tyrant so a new murdering tyrant can take over.

    New murdering tyrants are always our friends.

    For a week or so, at least.

    1. Lets get rid of a murdering tyrant so a new murdering tyrant can take over.

      Not until 2016, I’m afraid.

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  2. “”””possibly sending weapons to the insurgents. “””

    Shouldn’t we have individual background checks for each of these insurgents?

    And do they need assault rifles and magazines with more then 8 bullets?

    Wouldn’t it be better to give them each a shotgun and when Assad’s troops show up at their doors they can shoot them through the door.

  3. Never. Ending. Global. War. On. Terror.


    Geez – I don’t know what’s so hard to understand here. Why do you love the terrorists, Steve Chapman?

    /Jon Bolton

    1. Every time I hear that dude say “negociate” I want to slap him.

  4. “In reality, the greatest risk is putting our troops into a civil war where they could end up targeted by both sides, as we ingeniously arranged in Iraq. As we showed there, removing a dictator can unleash endless sectarian conflict. Fortunately, even McCain says he doesn’t favor American boots on the ground.”

    So…this is both a slippery slope AND a straw man.

    1. Seems to me that the sectarian conflict has already been unleashed, or re-unleashed.

      1. “re-unleashed” seems correct, after what the current dictator’s Dad did to Hama in 1982.

      2. Getting our troops involved would be much more of a frightening slippery slope scenario (to whatever extent slippery slopes can be frightening)–if only someone were advocating getting our troops involved.

        Meanwhile, we need to be careful not to advocate authoritarian dictatorship–if we’re still gonna call ourselves libertarians. Really, authoritarian dictators aren’t the long term solution to anything.

        I can see advocating a strategic relationship with a dictator who’s fighting our adversaries, but in this case, the dictator isn’t cooperating with us against terrorists. Assad is a state sponsor of a terrorist organization.

        He’s also the staunch ally of another state sponsor of terror, which has both a nuclear program and a long range missile program–AND Iran has repeatedly denounced us as their enemy. Iran is providing all kinds of money and weapons to the Assad regime–if they think Assad is crucial to their own security, who am I to argue with them?

        I certainly can’t sit quietly and listen to someone tell me about how I’m supposed to be worried about the terrorists taking over in Syria–without pointing out that Assad is a state sponsor of terror. Perhaps more importantly, someone needs to point out that Iran appears to think Assad’s survival is crucial to its own security.

        I hope Assad’s head ends up on a pike.

        1. And the coalition of non-Sunni minorities that support Assad, their heads on pikes as well? Or would you prefer they self-deport to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Leb, and IL? Also, advocating an end to the civil war and a political settlement to the conflict isn’t exactly the same as supporting the current administration.

          1. What we saw happen in Libya may be instructive–where the Al Qaeda people got chased out into Mali and started causing trouble there.

            I’d rather see everyone live in harmony–the old supporters of Assad, too. But it shouldn’t be up to us. It should be up to the Syrian people.

            I hope they choose non-terrorism. But that will never be an option so long as Assad stays in power. Brutal dictators aren’t brutal just because they want to be–they’re brutal because that’s the only way they can maintain power.

            That sort of brutality, authoritarianism, corruption, etc. eventually starves regular people of the opportunity to live a decent life. That’s why authoritarian places like Libya and Egypt were such ripe recruiting grounds for terrorists and jihadis. Those young men were starved of other opportunities.

            That equation won’t change until Assad is dead. That equation is a threat to American security. It isn’t so great that we should put American troops on the ground. And I’m not talking about giving them some stinger missiles or anything. But the threat is big enough that we might consider sending them some small arms.

            We can certainly quietly root for oppressed people to overthrow the vicious dictators who are oppressing them. This isn’t a U.S. president inflicting his will on the Iraqi people. This is the Syrian people rising up against their own dictator, and as a libertarian, I hope they’re successful in their struggle.

            1. But a lot of communities are supporting Assad as well, because they are afraid of the majority. The Assad faction is not a personality cult like Gaddafi. Libertarians should not support people rising up to form a new oppressive regiem with a different set of victims. Instead we should encourage Syrians to wither away their state to the point that different communities and outside powers find it to be nothing worth fighting over.

              1. I tend to lean toward KS’s thoughts. As I understood his OP, it’s not like he’s advocating violence, he’s advocating denouncing all the anti-liberty factions involved and proposing that we don’t single out only the rebel groups as terrorists when they are fighting a terrorist despotic regime. There are many evil minded groups and an unsure outcome, with many innocents in Syria dragged along. Some would say no clear path in the situation. I’d disagree, we have a clear path of non-adventurism.

                Those of a liberty first mindset have to be extremely wary of the rhetoric. As a person susceptible to some of the interventionist lines of thought myself, I understand exactly where KS is coming from.

            2. When (some) AQ left Libya they didn’t go to Mali. Those were mercenaries originally from Mali. AQ went to Syria. On NATO aircraft.

              Parenthetically, the Tsarnaev boys are a symbolic bargaining chip for Russia: the US will give Russia a free hand in Chechnya (US will no longer call Chechen rebels “freedom fighters” and will start calling them “terrorists”, plus may decrease or stop their support) if
              Russia allows the US a free hand in Syria.

              see Sibel Edmonds great blog

              1. That’s nonsense. Everybody knows Mossad airlifted the mercs from Libya to Mali and framed up the Tsarnaev bros. JEWS DID BOSTON MARATHON!!!!one11!!eleventy!!

  5. This topic was on a job interview I had today. They seemed to like my answers:
    1. There are no good guys there.
    2. Once you give them money, it is G-O-N-E, you cannot prevent them from using it however they want. There is no “recall” for that money.
    3. Even if you could track and control what they spent money on, which is impossible, but if you could they might buy food for the troops with it while “re-purposing” their old lunch budget for anything else they want.

  6. The word for #3 is “fungible.” Job interviewers love that word.

    1. Yeah. Try explaining fungibility in the context of EBT cards, dope, and alcohol. It’s maddening.

      1. Doesn’t fungible fit almost all government entitlements and foreign aid?

        Wait…..almost all government spending. I’m onto something here.

        1. It especially fits foreign aid. Once you give them the money, the only way to get it “back” is invading them and spending more than you threw away to begin with.

          Internally, if a fed misappropriates or misallocates, if the money is not recovered the Contracting Officer is personally responsible for the money. The feds might not get much back from a large misappropriation, but somebody is actually held responsible, every now and again.

    2. That was precisely the word I used at the time.

  7. Killing Bashar al-Assad would be worth doing on esthetic grounds alone. If we did it in a sufficiently abrupt and unsympathetic way we could then reasonably hope that the violent, irrational dictator who replaced him would entertain a lively dread of pissing us off.

    Alternatively, we could make a project of flattening everything in the area except Israel, and then turn the resulting wasteland over too the Israelis.

    1. If we stopped *giving* all foreign aid of any kind, Israel, England, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan would all survive fine without us.

      1. Israel would, but it would have to drastically modify its behavior to its neighbors, ie, play nice.

        1. Would it really? Or would the Israelis decide that if they didn’t have to appease the nitwits here in the U.S., and give the Palestinians, Egyptians, Iranians, etc. a kicking they wouldn’t recover from for decades?

          Keep in mind that (to the best of my knowledge) every time their revoting neighbors have met them in open warfare, Israel has rolled over them like Notre Dame would roll over Beauregard Normal School.

          1. Bear in mind you’re conversing with a 9/11 Truther who thinks Loose Change was a porno flick.

          2. Israel couldn’t handle Hezbollah, and *they* didn’t have an airforce, or lots and lots of American taxpayer funded tech.

            You’re a revolting racist, and ignorant as hell. In a conventional war, Iran would roll over Israel.

            Of course Israel has nukes, refuses inspections, refuses to sign the NPT, has used chemical weapons, routinely flouts the Geneva Conventions, relentlessly spies on the US, and has repeatedly provoked wars with its neighbors after embarking on a colonialist scheme to appropriate land from Arabized Palestinian people whose forebears had lived there longer – by centuries – than the tiny Judean and Israelite kingdoms largely of myth had any sort of sovereignty.

            You’re basically just a troll leaping to defend Israel for activities which wou’d find reprehensible if only some non-Jew were doing them,

  8. Defense contractors are undoubtedly very eager for us to get involved in Syria. Those six-figure incomes and McMansions in Fairfax County don’t just pay for themselves, you know.

    1. Blaming businessmen for the decisions made by govt. bureaucrats is a big LEFTOID ALERT

      1. Yes, but they’ve been pushing that idea since WWI, when it became necessary to distract people from the basic fact that we had been dragged into that war by a Progressive buttinski (who was also an appalling bigot, not that that has much toy do with the war).

        Woodrow Wilson was an absolutely vile human being, and the general moral stature of Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressives hasn’t risen much since.

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