The awful, terrible, unavoidable choice on Syria


So now the Arab Spring of 2011 will become the U.S. Summer of Syria in 2013. And no doubt the fall and winter of Syria, too, and in all likelihood, not just in 2013. The United States is going to intervene militarily in yet another sectarian war in the Middle East.

What a terrible, awful, inescapable decision this is.

It may well have come too late. It may well not do much good. It could make things worse. But it has to be done — human decency and America’s moral standing in the world demand it. But if it must be done, it must be done well. And that is going to be very tricky indeed.

The United Nations reported last week that since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in early 2011, 93,000 people have died. Some have been rebels. Some have been government forces. Most have been civilians.

As many as 1.5 million of Syria’s people have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Kurdistan and Iraq. Imagine: Fleeing to Iraq for safety. This is an epic humanitarian crisis.

But except for the growing numbers, that calculus hasn’t changed in 21 months. What’s different now is that President Barack Obama has concluded that the Assad government crossed his famous “red line” by employing chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, made the announcement Thursday:

“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year. Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.”

This was not a dubious source code-named “Curveball” warning about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs in Iraq. Ten years have taught us something.

“The use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades,” Rhodes said.

So now what? Obama has decided to let the Central Intelligence Agency continue doing what it’s already been doing: Coordinating the delivery of small arms to selected rebel forces. Only now the weapons will come from U.S. depots.

Inevitably, some of the U.S. arms and munitions will fall into the hands of Islamist forces and possibly make their way into the hands of terrorists. Recall that in the 1980s, the Reagan administration supplied anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan with Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Later some of those missiles were turned against U.S. forces. Such is the fate of big-power intervention in sectarian warfare.

The United States will be cautious about what types of weapons it supplies. The rebels want anti-tank weapons and SAMs to combat Assad’s Russian-made tanks and helicopter gunships. Those can too easily turn into terrorist weapons.

The United States must seek help from NATO allies enforcing a limited no-fly zone to allow rebel forces to stage outside Syria. An all-out attack on Syrian air defenses, one that could expose U.S. pilots and aircraft to missile fire, is no longer contemplated. It might have been useful a year ago when there was even less enthusiasm for it than there is now. Americans are tired of war; but the use of chemical weapons would sway public opinion toward intervention.

At one level, this is a sectarian war, with multiple, changing, ad-hoc coalitions of guerrillas and thugs. At another level it is a geopolitical proxy war between Iran — whose Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist-militia clients have been critical to Assad’s recent successes — and western governments, Israel and Sunni petro-states. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are on the table. So are Russia’s ambitions to renew its international influence.

At this point, it’s hard to see how limited intervention would force Assad to give up power. Even that would leave a vicious fight among would-be successors. If Assad agreed to peace talks, Iran and Russia would be the brokers. That would leave Israel further exposed.

It’s harder to see how this ends at all, much less ends well. Knowing that, Obama tried to avoid it. Chemical warfare forced his hand. The last superpower cannot stand by for that. As former President Bill Clinton, who stood by as Rwanda descended into hell, said last week, “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit.”

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 

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