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Why Obama Doesn’t Want To Intervene In Syria


After President Obama’s remarks about chemical weapons use in Syria, many newspaper articles appeared suggesting that he was rethinking his opposition to US involvement there. They were wrong, and weren’t listening. Obama said we don’t know who used the chemical weapons or to what extent. That isn’t building a case for intervention, it is knocking it down.

Olivier Knox gets this story right, in part because he asked experienced Washington, D.C. insiders.

Obama learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that US military intervention in the Middle East doesn’t actually work very well. Iraq is still a security basket case, with over 400 dead in bombings and attacks in April (nowhere near the high of 3000 a month in 2006 when the US was in charge of security, or even as much as contemporary Mexico, where over 1,000 a month have been dying in the drug war — but still no paradise). It has been 11 years and we are still stuck in Afghanistan, nor have we “stood up” a credible Afghan government.

Why people think a US intervention in Syria would go better, I don’t know. They always forget that generals are about winning quickly, even at the cost of civilian lives, and that a lot of carpetbaggers always show up in any war to find ways of profiting from it. Billions were looted from Iraq by American bureaucrat-criminals.

Sen. John McCain argues for an aerial intervention, which more or less worked in Libya. But Syria is not like Libya in any way.

Syria’s weapons depots, tanks and artillery are not out in some desert where they can be bombed with few casualties. They are in the cities. Bombing them would kill a lot of innocent civilians. Even just trying to take out the large number of anti-aircraft batteries (the essential first step of any aerial intervention) would be very costly in lives.

Everyone always forgets that if foreigners bomb a hated regime’s installations and accidentally thereby kill large numbers of innocent civilians, the dead civilians show up on the front page and everyone turns against the foreign air force. NATO only avoided this outcome in Libya by staying mostly away from the cities (it did not actually intervene in the Misrata siege). The few bombing raids on Gaddafi’s HQ, the Bab al-Aziziyah, did give the regime some propaganda points, since you can’t bomb downtown Tripoli without casualties.

So an air intervention is impractical in Syria, because its geography and the distribution of weapons are just different from those in Libya. And, any air intervention could well become unpopular both in Syria and the world, really, really fast.

A limited and very careful air intervention could possibly do some good, but in my experience military enterprises cannot be conducted in a ‘limited’ or ‘careful’ way.

If the concern is chemical weapons, those cannot be dealt with (must not be dealt with) by bombing them. That step would just release them into the air and kill people. Since McCain and other interventionists are not proposing US troops on the ground, it is unclear how he thinks the chemical weapons can be secured.

Moreover, the simple fact is that the US does not have good intel on where the chemical weapons are stockpiled. In the absence of really good such information, aerial bombardment of military bases risks accidentally hitting the canisters and releasing clouds of toxic gases onto civilian populations.

If an aerial intervention is not practicable, what about arming the rebels? The latter are already armed, so what this proposal really entails is giving them medium and heavy weaponry. But there is no way to keep such weapons out of the hands of radicals within the rebel camp. Moreover, having a lot of medium to heavy weaponry flood into a country can destabilize it for decades. If the Syrian rebels got shoulder-held heat-seeking missiles, would the Israeli civilian airlines, El Al, ever be safe again, in the aftermath?

I was in Pakistan in the early 1980s when security was relatively good. Then the CIA flooded in weapons to help the Mujahidin fight the Soviet-backed leftist government in Afghanistan. These weapons got sold on a Pakistani black market and started showing up in the bazaar. I had been in Lebanon’s civil war before going to Pakistan, and knew what it means when civilians can buy automatic guns at will. Pakistan’s security has spiraled down ever since and it is unclear when the world’s sixth-largest country will recover from the plague of weapons that has afflicted it.

So sending a lot of weapons into Syria might end the war sooner (or might not; the regime has heavier weapons); but it could also prolong the violence and insecurity in the aftermath.

People talk about arming groups loyal to the West, but that was how al-Qaeda got started in the first place. They don’t necessarily maintain an alliance of convenience with the foreigners.

All this is not to reckon with Russian and Chinese opposition to NATO intervention, and the consequent lack of a security council resolution. For the US to act in the teeth of international law would just be one more nail in its coffin. Sometimes if you aren’t careful, you undermine the very framework you are trying to uphold.

Finding ways to help the refugees and displaced, and to get food to half-starving neighborhoods in places like Homs, are about the best the US could do. I think we’re on the verge of having a plausible humanitarian corridor in the north, and Jordan is considering a buffer zone in the south.

It is not as if the world is stepping up on humanitarian aid in the first place; why would anybody think they will risk even more with a military role? Lets see billions in humanitarian aid flow to the Syrian people– that might sustain them for their fight against tyranny. But even that is not being done.

It is a horrible situation. It breaks our hearts every day. But here as in medicine, the first rule has to be to do no harm, to avoid making things worse. It would be very, very easy to make things worse.

Obama is a smart man who knows all the above. That is why he is reluctant to get involved in that civil war, unless it spills over onto a US ally in the region in a highly destabilizing way. 

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