Washington foreign policy gurus still can't get over the idea that we ought to be bombing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now, like clockwork, another piece has appeared in The New York Times urging aggression against the Syrian regime, this one by Dennis Ross and Andrew Tabler.
According to Ross and Tabler, if Assad doesn't comply with a recent accord struck with Russia that restricts his actions, the United States should "punish the Syrian government for violating the truce by using drones and cruise missiles" to take out sensitive regime targets in areas without a Russian military presence. This, they assert, "should persuade [Russia] to make Mr. Assad behave."
Let's start with the speciousness of their incentive. Assad's regime has been under endless international pressure. It's been threatened militarily by the United States. By 2015, it had lost 83 percent of its former territory. And yet it kept on fighting without any indication it intends to "behave." The one time Assad did comply with American demands was when Russia stepped in and brokered a deal over his chemical weapons, which is probably why Ross and Tabler think Moscow can bend him now. But Assad is in a much stronger position today and he knows the United States must prioritize fighting terrorism over toppling him. So why should he give in to even the most precisely calibrated of threats?
Assad has, as Alexander Cockburn once wrote of Christopher Hitchens, "sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon." He's reduced his civil war to a choice of total victory or ultimate destruction. There is no going back for him, which is why threats of pinprick Western bombings have failed to sway his behavior. Give it another try—follow Ross's and Tablum's advice—and he'll most likely remain noncompliant, too close to taking Aleppo to stop now. That will mean we'll have to continue bombing, and the mission creep will drag us deeper into a civil war in which we have no compelling option or interest.
John Dickinson's advice that "experience must be our only guide" isn't half-bad when applied to foreign policy. So in America's experience, what will happen if we follow this course and bomb Assad? The deposal of both Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi ripped open vacuums in Iraq and Libya respectively, and extremist militias were happy to fill the voids. Ross and Tabler aren't suggesting toppling Assad, of course, or even severely damaging him, but given the formidable jihadist presence in Syria that's in many cases proximate to Assad's forces, their plan could still end up allowing our enemies to advance.
That means not just the Islamic State, but also al-Nusra, the jihad syndicate that severed its ties with al-Qaeda last month for PR purposes, but hasn't changed any of its aims. To wit: Nusra wants to establish Sharia law in Syria and destroy groups it regards as apostates. It's collaborated with the Khorasan group of western Syria that observers believe is plotting an attack on the American homeland. It's toyed with the idea of declaring its own emirate to rival the Islamic State. It differs from ISIS only in that it's more insidious, ingratiating itself to the Syrian people by setting up food drives and avoiding public displays of brutality—at least for now.
The bomb-bomb-bomb-Assad crowd counters that our options aren't limited to the regime, al-Nusra, and ISIS. There's a fourth alternative to fill any vacuum created by a weakened Assad: nationalist rebels from groups like the Free Syrian Army. The problem is that many of these brigades have already surrendered, and those that remain tend to lag behind the jihadists in training and equipment. This has compelled more moderate rebels to fight alongside the extremists, creating an overlap that's difficult to pull apart.
The Syrian expert Charles Lister writes: "In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012—and to great effect on the battlefield." Today, al-Nusra is at the heart of the rebellion. That means Assad's loss will be the gain of our real enemy, a former franchise of the group that attacked us on 9/11. Russia knows we can't allow this and thus won't enfeeble the regime too greatly, making any threat signaled by bombing somewhat empty.
One more problem: Congress has never approved any authorization for the use of military force against Syria. That makes the action Ross and Tabler are suggesting unlawful. They're right to deplore Assad's brutality and a political solution is still worth pursuing. But no accord is worth an illegal and ineffective military strike that risks the expansion of a vicious jihad gang.