The Least Bad Option in Syria

If military intervention is inevitable, how should the U.S. proceed?


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.

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  1. Assad may have violated the RULES OF WAR. Ref!?

    1. Isn’t a civil war by legal definition not an actual war but a rebellion?

      I read a book recently (name forgotten) about the fine line walked by Lincoln in trying to have the 1861 fuss treated legally as a rebellion, not war, and how the blockade couldn’t be called a blockade, prisoners couldn’t be called prisoners of war, etc. Obviously he didn’t have Chief Justice Roberts on his side.

      1. It served Lincoln’s ends to have it treated as a rebellion.

        But do rebels generally have an organized government and constitution? Clearly defined political entities? Uniformed armed forces with clear chains of command? No, no and… no. Lincoln was clearly in the wrong here and his suspension of habeas was illegal.

      2. I don’t see this as merely another civil war. It’s rather a part of a wider regional war that pits Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran and the Shiite militants of Lebanon.

        And because both Israel and Saudi Arabia are among America’s closest strategic partners, a discussion of the American position calls for an examination of what those partners want and expect of America. This is completely absent in the article.

        1. Christ you’re delusional. All of the borders there are fiction established by European colonial powers. Not only do they have no native intrinsic meaning to the inhabitants, borders as a theory are meaningless just about everywhere.

          1. True, borders are fictional. Doesn’t mean that they are meaningless. Much like the pieces of paper issued to serve as currency by the governments that guard these borders. Delusional or not, lives are lost over such fictions.

            Dostoyevski’s novels are fictions as well. Doesn’t detract from their ability to teach and inspire us. To conflate fiction with meaninglessness is an error.

  2. And, yes, the U.S. has a policy against assassination

    Look you can’t just go around killing important people on a whim, you just have to kill enough of their unimportant people to get your message across. That’s how the enlightened do it. If we started targeting the people giving the actual orders Bog only knows what mistaken ideas would get into the proles’ heads.

    1. Well said.

    2. If we started targeting the people giving the actual orders…

      There’s no ‘we’ there.

      1. Oh, but government is just a name for things “we” do together. Especially the things “we” want no fucking part of.

        1. Your parents signed your social contract on your behalf when they were issued their genitals, and by god you will be bound to it.

    3. Maybe we can get a terrorist to go to a restaurant next door to where assad is so we can justify blowing up the whole block. Then we can count all of the fighting age males there as terrorists and totally justify the murderdrone. Just look at all the terrorists we killed!

      1. mr simple| 9.4.13 @ 11:42AM |#
        “Maybe we can get a terrorist to go to a restaurant next door to where assad is so we can justify blowing up the whole block”

        Somebody who knew the terrorist when he was in school will do just fine on Obama’s people-killing list.

  3. Moammar Qaddafi’s ‘lesson’ for despots is worth continuing. Which is to say if you see the light, give up your WMD’s, shake the Prez’s hand, even hire Beyonce to sing at your kid’s wedding – all you get for that is murdered. Egypt is another example of what a regime being a ‘friend’ of the United States gets.

    Going to assassinations, all it does is confirm methods to madness of something like the North Korean regime: Hide behind a xenophobic cult with some nukes, because that is all that works keeping US bombs at bay. We just keep doubling down on stupid, it’s bizarre.

    1. Interesting take that matches the facts.

    2. Exactly. I do not see how we can tell NKorea, Iran, etc., to give up their weapons programs when doing THAT EXACT THING guaranteed Qaddafi’s collapse only a few years later at the hands of the very people who insisted he give them up.

      WMD’s are aces in the hole for any “rogue” government desiring to stay in power in today’s age. Giving them up is quite simply irrational.

      1. WMDs and hand guns are both asymmetrical weapons, speaking of aces in the hole (or equalizers). With just a little training they can both be operated by an 11 year old girl just as well as 25 yo male. And for heaven’s sake, disputes cannot be settled by hand-to-hand combat. In that case the 25 yo male will almost always win.

  4. Leaders have decided it’s not a good idea to target leaders. For the good of the people. We reverse that policy, and it will happen that Air Force One will no longer be safe to touch down in Copenhagen to lobby for the Olympics or whatever.

  5. Look, what Assad allegedly did was atrocious and there should be some sort of way to punish him for it.

    THAT said (whew), does the United States REALLY want to own anything that is going on or will happen in Syria? Clearly, we’re rhetorically supporting the rebels (and likely supplying them with arms through Turkey). Actual military intervention is a whole new level of ownership. Do we really want to be seen as responsible for the atrocities the rebels will very likely commit if/when they bring down the Assad government with an assist from the US? The Alawite minority may be slaughtered wholesale; at the very least, they will be ejected from their homes in an orgy of retribution for actual or imagined slights they may have perpetrated against the majority populace of Syria since the Baath Party came to power in the 1960s. The Syrian Christian community — among the oldest Christian communities in the world — may also be ejected because the Assad governments were perceived to “favor” that minority, too (not completely inaccurate). Do we want responsibility for these things?

    “Limited strikes” are not the answer. If we want to go into Syria, we have to GO INTO SYRIA: boots on the ground, a long-term commitment, political advisors, etc., with no guarantee of success. Nobody wants to do that; heck, even “limited strikes” are turning out to be a tough sell.

    1. bassjoe| 9.4.13 @ 11:44AM |#
      “Look, what Assad allegedly did was atrocious and there should be some sort of way to punish him for it.”

      You are ‘way more certain of the circumstances than am I.

      1. I did say “alleged”… 🙂

        The possibility of a false-flag operation has crossed my mind. But, to be honest, I do not see why the US would do that. There’s nothing in worth in Syria that should attract the US. Israel I’m sure would much prefer a weak dictator than a post-revolutionary mess on its border.

        Maybe the rebels launched the sarin missiles. Which wouldn’t be all that shocking, to be honest.

        To me, the most likely scenario is that some general independently decided to use the weapons for God-knows-what reason. The Assads aren’t known for being wholly irrational actors and using the weapons in such a blatant manner was way more stupid than anything they have ever done in their 40 years ruling Syria.

        1. Israelis used gas weapons in Palestine;
          US used gas weapons in Iraq.

          Does that mean the “list” will be expanded in the future?

          Criteria is not relevant.

          1. That is a very poor comparison. The use of riot control agents, WP and flame weapons are considered by some lawyers as chemical weapons and by others as NOT chemical weapons. Even if considered chemical weapons, RCA/WP/Flame are not the same as using lethal agents (nerve/blister/blood) in this case. Do not mistake that I favor intervention. I am unalterably opposed to intervention in Syria, but your example places a poor straw man in heavy wind.

  6. He does all kinds of impractical and absurd things so what makes this any different; “It would be absurd at this point for him to suggest non-citizen dictators deserve any better.”

    The very act of waging even a cute little baby war in the midlle east is absurd. Funding terrorist to bring down a foreign government is absurd.

    And the problem with “least bad” should be obvious since you admit it is bad.

  7. 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.

    Unless? *Bring bring* Hello? Hinkle, it’s Iraq and Afghanistan. They’d like to have a word with you. Oh and I have Vietnam on line 2.

  8. You know, I really hope being cynical to the point of paranoia, but I can’t help but wonder about the President’s urgency to launch an attack on Syria John Boehner’s and Eric Cantor’s decision to support the President’s push. After all, at this point, none of the fourteen rather pointed questions posed in Boehner’s letter to the President have really been addressed. And it’s hardly like either is an uber-hawk in the mold of McCain, King, or Graham. On Obama’s side, for a guy who’s claiming to be a reluctant warrior, he’s sure shilling hard to go. And go quick.
    I can’t help but wonder if this war is really about foreign policy. Specifically, I can’t help but wonder if this is all really about the debt limit. I mean, it sounds ludicrous, but a war does give both the administration and the Republican leadership pretty much what they want. Obama wins the debate because “we can’t skimp on our boys in Syria during a time of war”. And the Republican leadership gets to put a shiv in the guts of the Tea Party because “well, after all, we really would like to cut spending, but there is a war on…”.
    I really hope I’m wrong on this one. I really do. I’d like to think our leaders are venal and insipid rather than so proactively evil that they’d put our service members at risk to provide political cover. But I really wish I could be sure.

    1. For Obama, it’s all about getting Benghazi/IRS/NSA out of the news over the next year.

      For Boehner and Cantor, well, that might not be a bad guess. They may be taking a calculated risk that opposing Obama’s plan would bring worse electoral consequences next year than going along. Boehner, in particular, is a political survivor who doesn’t seem to have a ounce of bravery in him. He’s always in bunker mode.

      1. Chris,

        I appreciate your efforts to restore my faith in their venality and insipidness.

  9. The Syrian rebels have tried to assasinate Assad, and failed. Why would we have any more success than them? If it is shown that Assad had no knowledge of the chemical attack, what would we do then?

    Obama fucked up with his “red line”. He just needs to admit it so the US’s credibility isn’t in question.

  10. Assad is still a member of the political elite. Obama would sacrifice hundreds of US soldiers and thousands of innocent Syrians before he would kill one of his own.

  11. It’s most likely that the rebels were given the chemical weapons by the Saudis and they screwed around and gassed themselves, or were sabotaged to make it look like Assad attacked. Just think about who has anything to gain from US attacking Syria and the whole situation becomes more clear.…..-and-syria

  12. While I consider myself politically neutral, I do find to be a Libertarian web site.

    What in the world is this article doing here?

    It could be titled “If Non-Intervention Fails, Who Should We Kill?”

    If force seems inevitable, why hasn’t anyone mentioned pressuring the Assad regime to get rid of it’s chemical weapons (the crux of the problem) via their Russian allies?

    …Because regime change is the endgame decided 2 years ago.

    It’s War!

  13. It’s great how the government can so easily distract the public.

    President: I might attack Syria!
    Congress: Better ask us!
    President: Congress, should I attack Syria?
    Congress: Debate!
    President: I may do it anyway…
    Media: Should they attack Syria? Yes, or no? Hmmmmm.

    Meanwhile, we’re still incarcerating people on a massive scale, going into tremendous debt, taxing the bejesus out of everyone, etc., etc., etc.

    All they have to do is threaten to throw us into another war, and that becomes the new, almost exclusive issue warranting attention. Why should they ever clean up their old messes, when they can just create new ones to worry about, constantly?

  14. If we took out Assad, then someone potentially even worse will take his place. And there’s no place on earth where an assassination of the head of the state won’t be considered as an act of war or a major threat.

    If we’re dead set on doing SOMETHING, the least bad option is sanctions. The least bad military option is to drone strike facilities that manufacture these weapons or rebel leaders or anyone known to use these weapons.

    I keep hearing that there’s no imminent threat to this nation. Maybe there’s no official threat from the Assad regime. But I wonder how difficult it would be for trained agents to disperse deadly chemical in places like malls that lacks security checks.

    Why are people more freaked about chemical weapons than conventional weapons? Because they assume there are ways to shoot down missiles or drone strike armed factions. But chemical weapons are unseen, probably cover more area, and will more effectively demoralize the nation by turning large areas into fearsome quarantine zones depicted in the movie. Twitching bodies, foaming mouths, men in hazmat suits, etc.

    Mccain and Obama wants to do something in Syria AND embrace open borders. That makes no sense to me whatsoever.

  15. The best reason for not attacking Syria is that there’s no goddam reason FOR attacking Syria.

    1. not done whacking hornet’s nest

  16. “Regardless, Assad could rebuild them soon enough.”
    There is no science in this sentence, it is a clip of dinner table rant.

    “So take him out.”
    If you are willing to trade your life to get someone killed then you can easily make that statement. At the very least, if you are publishing a plea for assassination, then put more effort in the writing and get personal about it.

    I am writing this comment because I believe a call for assassination should be accompanied by highly detailed sentences and personal investment, not by a lazy rant. I hope other readers, and possible authors don’t take this example.


  17. Chemical weapons are very poor weapons for many reasons, including they can bite the users as easily as the targets. (See 2d German use of chlorine in WWI and on and on.) You slime an area for terror of civilians or short term area denial or channelization of military forces. But even in perfect conditions with the best Chem folks they still are not that good of a weapon.

    Either the government or the rebels did it. 1a) Assad is in a corner and could have used them because he was receiving effective MANPAD fire (as reported overseas) from the area or for shits and giggles. Iran is Assad’s biggest backer and I do not see them saying “Okay” because of the negative impacts on them. 1b) Assad is looking for the dumb MF general who authorized w/o his knowledge. 2) The rebels did it to themselves either by “Oops” or as a false flag. Both options have a wide history in the middle east. In the right conditions even 1 or 2 rockets/shells going off in a confined area could account for the casualties.

    Upshot to either. The US should sit on the side and not let a Syrian shit show interrupt the NFL.

    1. Assad was NOT in a corner ! The last two months they had great success and many NATO mercenaries defected. US/NATO media did report a little about it. The end of the US-guerrilla war on Syria was close to be ended!

      The fore USA on behave of the Saudi prince did deliver this poison gas. Also Turkish press reported of several kilograms of SARIN gas found at Al Nusra mercenaries.

      The US war hawks well know, that only death children can fool US citizens and switch their brain off.

      Where is the motive of Assad to kill its own children? With gas ? When the UN inspector just arrived?

      … when he is short before victory over the US-sent Al CIAda killers?
      Do you think he wants to have its country being destroyed by NATO bombs?

      The US bombing is bombing Al Qaeda into power ! Do not get fooled by only bombing military targets – civil infrastructure is ALWAYS the main target – see…..ilots.html

      Check this for details and proof:…..-on-syria/

  18. By not doing it, obviously.

  19. Stop these NATO-mass murderers ! They all need to be sentenced to death by the war criminals court !

    They ordered this gas massacre on hundreds of children to get their war justified. Even Bush did lie better than those war criminals.

    Syrians again are turned into refugees with this bombing threat ! And millions Syrians, especially children will die as after Iraq bombing.

    The REGULARLY do bomb civil infrastructure, like power plant, gas &water; supply, and sewage plants, telecommunication. railways anything that hurts and disables a country – as done in Libya (96 percent of water supply in a desert country!)

    Read what the so-called “collateral damage” in Yugoslav bombing really was – Spanish NATO fighter jet pilots did speak what really happened:…..ilots.html

    Check to get the news they did hide in order to fool you.

  20. I know this will be ridiculed by many here, but there are many highly credible sources (locate them on that show that the chemical attack was perpetrated by the Al Qaeda rebels, not the Assad government. There is no, repeat, NO credible or independently verifiable evidence that Assad did the attack. All circumstantial evidence stands against the idea that Assad is the perpetrator, to wit, he is winning w/o them, their use would invite US involvement to his detriment, they are dangerous to his own supporters and troops.

    BTW, can we all finally admit that Al Qaeda is now and always has been a wholly owned subsidiary of western/NATO intelligence and has at all times been effectively used to promote US foreign policy while 100% under their direction, accountability and control? (See the results in Afghanistan circa 1980s, Chechnya, the Balkans, Chechnya again, US on 9/11/01, Libya, and now Syria) Where has Al Qaeda appeared and the US NOT gotten into a war that it (read: big oil) was angling for?

  21. previous reason: There are no evident good guys. It’s not as

  22. previous reason: There are no evident good guys. It’s not as

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