America’s foreign policy makers have my sympathies, especially this week. The Syrian conflict is the kind of problem that keeps actual decision-makers awake at night, staring at the ceiling, and sweating even with the air conditioning on.
Every option—including the option to do nothing at all—is ghastly. Syria is a big bloody mess and it will continue to be a big bloody mess no matter what America does. The United States will be partly blamed for what happens no matter what. Every option is doomed to look like a screw-up in hindsight. Even if Washington selects the least worst option (whatever that is), it will still look like the wrong choice once the results are in.
I can’t know exactly what foreign policy makers themselves are thinking right now, but here’s a sample of thoughts from various analysts across the political spectrum, including some from abroad and a few from my own comments section.
I’ll start with Daniel Johnson in the Wall Street Journal on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary support for striking Bashar al-Assad.
In a speech on Thursday that otherwise failed to persuade, Mr. Cameron had one memorable line: The experience of Iraq, he said, had "poisoned the wells of public opinion," undermining trust in the intelligence and other evidence on which all governments must make decisions.
It will indeed be hard to rebuild that trust, on both sides of the Atlantic—even though the war crimes of the Assad regime are being committed in broad daylight. But the mistake that both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Obama are making, like their predecessors Tony Blair and George W. Bush, is to focus solely on chemical weapons.
Mr. Cameron ruled out regime change as the aim, yet it is obvious that unless he is deposed, Bashar Assad (like his father Hafez Assad before him) will continue to use the genocidal methods to destroy the rebels that have already cost well over 100,000 mainly civilian lives and displaced up to three million refugees.
The attacks now planned by the allies are thus explicitly intended to leave Mr. Assad and his regime in place, but to deter them from deploying WMD. This makes no sense. More likely, airstrikes with this limited purpose will merely embroil the West in a protracted civil war.
The lack of a clear and attainable objective in Syria was one of the main reasons why Mr. Cameron was unable to persuade many of his Conservative colleagues to support him. Another reason was suspicion that Syria's opposition groups, such as the Syrian National Council, are really Islamist front organizations, funded by the Saudis and Gulf states and infiltrated by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. Many in the West are deeply concerned by the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Syria and across the Middle East, as evidence mounts that rebel forces have carried out ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control. Clearly, any U.S.-led intervention must take precautions against the danger that one genocidal regime could be replaced by another.
Hanin Ghaddar in NOW Lebanon:
There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad and [Hezbollah’s Secretary General] Hassan Nasrallah are today quite relieved now that Obama has decided to seek congressional approval for a limited strike on Syria. State media in Syria immediately presented Obama’s decision as a victory for the regime, in addition to the start of a historic American retreat. Hezbollah’s media in Lebanon described it this morning as a victory for the Axis of Resistance.
It is not hard to imagine how things will go from here in case a strike on Syria is called off. To reinforce this “victory” and translate it into practical terms, the Syrian regime will do whatever it takes to gain more control on the ground. This means that it may freely kill more people with whatever weapons it desires. As for the Syrian regime’s allies, Iran will gain more bargaining chips over its nuclear program and regional domination, and Hezbollah in Lebanon will regain its legitimacy as a “victorious” party.
Does the United States want this?
Of course not. (That is why Obama considered the strike in the first place). But now that the US administration is hesitating and lacks overall determination, many analysts say that the question over a potential strike will be put to congress so it dies in debate. Even if untrue, Obama has certainly demonstrated to Iran and Assad that the US does not seriously care about the Middle East, and that the supposed Resistance is free to behave as it pleases.
Lincoln Mitchell in the Huffington Post:
The most striking thing about the debate, to use that word in a general sense, regarding the possibility of the U.S. attacking Syria has not been the coalescence of the foreign policy establishment behind the president. That is to be expected in a town where being alone is far more damaging than being wrong. Rather, it is that the arguments against the proposed Obama policy from both the left and the right.
The arguments on the left revolve around a battery of issues questioning things like why the U.S. should act as the adjudicator of international law, what the longer term plan for Syria would be, and the wisdom of completely ignoring precedent from places like, for example, Iraq. Many critics on the left cannot help but notice the disturbing parallels between the sudden urgency which now characterizes the Obama administration's call for action against Syria and the tone of the Bush administration during the runup to the war in Iraq.
Critics on the right have argued that the type of small-scale limited strike against Assad will accomplish little, especially given that the administration has said that it will not seek to bring down Assad's regime. These arguments raise the question of what the Obama administration hopes to accomplish by a limited strike and what the President will do the day after the strike when Bashar al-Assad is still in power and still committing atrocities against his own people. It is quite possible that surviving a limited strike will not, as the Obama administration hopes, send a message to Assad that continued use of chemical weapons will lead to more attacks, but instead will allow Assad to turn to the rest of the region and argue that he has stood down Obama and the U.S.
Both the left and the right, generally speaking, make very strong arguments, but these arguments lead to very difficult policy recommendations. The left arguments suggest either doing nothing or seeking some kind of either non-military or multi-lateral solution, while the arguments on the right often call for a broader military intervention than the one proposed by the president. It is flabbergasting that while the war in Iraq is still going on, there are those who think another large intervention in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, to address an issue that is not directly related to US national interest is a good idea. Promises that there will be no boots on the ground notwithstanding, a long involvement in Syria would be a disaster. Perhaps conservative policy makers and kibbitzers don't see or want to believe that, but the American people do.
Elliot Abrams in National Review:
As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Obama has decided to attack Syria with cruise missiles and perhaps a bit more, those of us who have been urging a stronger stand on Syria for two years should be very pleased. This is what we’ve asked for, isn’t it?
It isn’t, and I can’t muster more than one or one and a half cheers. Why not?
Two things have been notable about the Syrian civil war. First, real American security interests are at stake in Syria and have been from the start. Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah, which together have an enormous amount of American blood on their hands, have sent troops to Syria to win a war there. Russia has provided a constant flow of arms to the regime. They all consider their control of Syria important, and they are right: If they lose the control they have through Bashar Assad, their position in the entire Middle East is badly weakened — and ours is strengthened. This is a proxy war, with them on one side, and American allies — Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — on the other. It is in the interest of the United States to win this fight, and we should want Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to lose.
I’ve been in Israel this week, and found universal the sense that America is receding in the region — and seeking to recede. I know from previous travel, and many conversations with Arab leaders, that our Arab friends in the Gulf share this view. A couple dozen cruise missiles landing on chemical-weapons warehouses will not change that perception, and indeed will raise questions about our odd priorities on both the humanitarian and strategic levels.
Mario Loyola in National Review:
The U.S. must think backwards from the Middle East that it wants to achieve. That means, first and foremost, diminishing Iran’s pernicious influence and, eventually, expelling that influence from the eastern Mediterranean altogether. The Islamic Revolution of Iran has been successful nowhere outside of Iran except in Lebanon, and has reached into that country only because of Iran’s alliance with Syria, which has provided a strategic bridge to the Levant. But Syria is not a Shiite country, nor is anyone in Syria, including Assad, a true believer in the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Cutting Iran off from its crucial Syrian ally is not only possible, it is probably only a matter of time.
The first step towards capitalizing on our opportunity in Syria is for Congress to ensure that any strikes on Syria serve the Obama’s administration’s own diplomatic goals: changing the momentum on the ground and eventually removing Assad from power in a negotiated settlement.
If the Syria resolution cannot be modified to meet these goals, then military strikes will be pointless by design, and should be opposed.
Max Boot in Commentary on how the president’s vacillations appear in the rest of the world.
It is perfectly appropriate to debate whether U.S. military action is justified; there are strong arguments against (especially against the kind of tepid and symbolic cruise missile strike that Obama seems to be contemplating). But the time to have that debate is before the president and secretary of state tell the entire world that the U.S. is about to strike.
Michael Young in NOW Lebanon:
Pity Hezbollah. After years of hearing earnest observers tell you what a quintessentially Lebanese party it was, and a revolutionary one at that, now we can plainly see that it is merely the Foreign Legion of the Iranian leadership—there to march or die at Tehran’s behest—as well as, more recently, cannon fodder for Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
With the United States intending to attack Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta east and west of Damascus, Hezbollah may again be placed at the forefront of a retaliatory plan.
Iranian parliamentarians have warned that any attack would provoke a response against Israel. “In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” Mansur Haqiqatpur, an influential parliamentarian said on Tuesday. Hossein Sheikholeslam, who heads the Iranian parliament’s international affairs committee, warned that “the first victim of an attack on Syria will be the Zionist regime.”
Most analysts, however, see such statements in the context of implicit red lines set by the Iranian regime. They also note that threats made by parliamentarians, even important ones, do not necessarily have the same impact as those issued by senior security or political figures, perhaps buying Iran a margin of maneuver.
Iran’s red line, evidently, is this: If the United States limits its attacks both in time and scope and does not undermine the Assad regime, then the Iranians will not retaliate, or ask Hezbollah to retaliate. However, if American action takes longer than a few days and is seen as tipping the balance in favor of the rebels, then Iran and its allies will widen the war, most probably by firing rockets at Israel.
Vali Nasr in the New York Times:
Syria, or chunks of it, could be ruled by radical Islamists associated with Al Qaeda — producing new and unwelcome threats to global security that could invite an even larger American intervention down the line…It is in America’s strategic interest, then, to take decisive action to mortally wound the Assad regime. Ensuring that Syria does not become a haven for Al Qaeda — a legitimate fear — would have to immediately follow.
Render, in my own comments section:
A tremendous waste of money and risk to men and expensive equipment to do little more then make already existing and empty rubble bounce. A waste which will not undo the effects of Assad's chemical weapons or bring back those already dead and is rather unlikely to effect the morale of the Alawite community, who are already locked in a no quarter civil war for their very survival.
Craig, in my own comments section:
I'm a non-interventionist at heart but nothing bothers me more when it comes to foreign policy than the fact Khomeini declared open season on Americans more than 30 years ago and the IRI and its proxies have been targeting innocent Americans ever since, and nothing has ever been done about it. Nothing. If we do strike at Assad, it will be the very first time those evil sons of bitches have ever gotten the response from the US that they deserve for their crimes against us.