As I write this, the United States and our allies are contemplating military action against Syria. While the Syrian government has been busy killing its people for quite some time, it is now claimed that it has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons. Thus, there is apparently a need for a military response.
The United Kingdom, which has often been the Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger, has expressed reluctance to leap into battle. Even the American congress, which rushed to authorize our attack on Iraq, has expressed opposition to Obama taking executive military action. As others have said, memories of the “slam dunk” that led up to the Iraq war are playing a significant role in these responses. Interestingly, the leadership United Kingdom seems mainly concerned with how quickly the attacks will begin as opposed to being concerned about attacking Syria. In the United States congress’s main worry seems to be that the President will rush ahead on his own and deny them what they see as their right to get us into war.
Despite the fact that the people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem opposed to attacking Syria, it seems likely that there will be an attack soon. One obvious reason is that Obama played the red line game (which, on the face of it, said to Syria that they could keep killing as long as they did not use weapons of mass destruction). If he fails to make good on his red line talk, the United States will lose credibility. From a moral standpoint, it could be claimed that the United States and the West have already lost some moral credibility by their ineffectual condemnation of the slaughter in Syria.
Assuming that we will be attacking Syria, there is the obvious question of what we should be endeavoring to accomplish and what plan we have for what will follow the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as examples of what happens when we go to war without properly considering the matter and setting clear, attainable and worthwhile objectives.
One approach is a limited, punitive strike. That is, to attack Syrian targets in order to punish the government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. In this case, the obvious questions are whether or not the Syria government actually used chemical weapons and whether or not such a punishment strike would achieve its goal(s). The goal might be simple punishment: they use chemical weapons, then we blow some things up to pay them back for their misdeed. Or the goal might be deterrence via punishment: they use chemical weapons, we blow some things up. And we will keep doing it until they stop.
Morally, the Syrian government has certainly earned punishment and it would be a good thing to deter them from engaging in more killing—or to even deter them from killing with chemical weapons. However, there is the question of whether or not our attacks will be just punishment or adequate deterrence. If the goal is deterrence, then there is the question of how long we will engage in deterrence attack and what sort of escalation we should engage in should the initial attack fail to deter.
Another approach is to strike in support of the opposition. That is, to attack Syrian targets with the primary goal of improving the opposition’s relative position. This could, of course, also be a punishment attack as well. In this case, the questions would be whether or not such intervention would be effective and whether or not the results would be desirable for the United States.
One obvious concern about the conflict in Syria is that it is not an oppressive government against plucky, freedom-loving rebels. If that was the case, then the matter would be rather easier. Rather, it is a battle between an oppressive government and a bewildering array of opposition groups (including an Al Qaeda franchise). There are also outside forces involved, such as Iran, Russia and China.
Because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the opposition, it is important to consider the consequences of attacking in support of the opposition (or, more accurately, the oppositions). While the Syrian government is a morally bad government and an enemy of America, it has imposed order on the state and is, obviously enough, not the worst option. If, for example, the Syrian government were to topple and the area fell into almost complete chaos, that would be worse than the current situation. Even worse for the United States and most other people would be a takeover of the state by radical forces and extremists.
It is also rather important to take into account the possible and likely reactions of the other powers that are involved in the conflict. Iran, China and Russia have a significant stake in the matter and they might actually react to an American attack. Russia, for example, is sending warships to the area. While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.
Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of confidence in any of the leaders involved in this matter. After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions. That is, playing the political game is rather different than war. That said, I do hope that wise decisions are made. But, no matter what, many more people are going to be killed—it is mainly a question of how many and with what weapons.