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Allan Topol Headshot

Voting in Congress on Syria

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President Obama's instincts were correct. Chemical warfare on innocent civilians causing horrific injury and death cannot be tolerated. Members of Congress face an agonizingly difficult decision on the Syrian war resolution. They have many reasons to vote no.

One is the fear of being dragged into still another Middle Eastern Muslim war just when we are finally extricating from Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two wars inflicted a great cost in people and resources on the United States. Historians will debate for decades whether we received any offsetting benefit in Iraq (Bush's war) or in Afghanistan (which Obama once referred to as a "war of necessity"), but for now the American people have a war weariness.

Second is the legitimate concern of whether a limited operation with short-duration missile strikes will achieve any benefit. It will not drive Assad from power. Indeed, that is not the objective. Nor will it deprive him of chemical weapons for future attacks. In terms of actual damage, Assad has by now had time to move or to conceal many of his prized weapons, which would have been prime targets had Obama followed the advice of Sun Tzu in the Art Of War: "Attack when they are unprepared, make your move when they do not expect it." With the passage of time, our attack may be nothing more than a pinprick which will embolden Assad.

Third is the concern that we will be aiding the Jihadists, sworn enemies of the U.S., whom we have been trying to kill elsewhere with our drone attacks. It is unclear whether they or the moderate secularists will gain control in Syria if Assad is weakened. A good rule of thumb in the Middle East in recent years has been that the extremists usually prevail in these conflicts.

Fourth is the virtual certainty that there will be civilian casualties. It is inevitable that in the days after the attack the Assad regime will release pictures of dead and wounded civilians -- many of them children -- and claim that they were hit in the missile strike. The United States will be vilified in the Arab press and on the Arab street.

Fifth is that Obama has handled the Syrian situation so poorly for the last two years. For example, he could have set up a no-fly zone when the rebels were almost exclusively moderate secularists. He has constantly moved the goal posts on his so called red line that he has seemed unwilling to act and the U.S. weak. Some in Congress may view Obama's reluctance as a reason to vote no.

Sixth is the fact that we have not been able to assemble a group of nations to join with us in common action. Even the British, who could always be counted on to be our partners, have bailed out. French support is no longer assured. Support from the Saudis and other Arab nations is only vocal and may be soft.

Seventh is the law of unintended consequences. There is no way to predict everything that will happen. Putin and Russia may take some action in response. There may be cyber-attacks in the U.S. Iran may use its puppets in Hezbollah to launch an attack on Israel leading to a larger Middle Eastern conflict.

Notwithstanding all of these arguments, one factor trumps them and should compel a member of Congress to vote yes. The civilized world must have certain norms and rules that even those such as Assad, the butchers of Serbia, or Hitler and his cohorts cannot flaunt. Otherwise the world will descend into chaos. One of those norms is that wars are fought by and between armies. Civilians may not be murdered by the use of chemical or other weapons of mass destruction.

As President Obama stated in Stockholm, "The moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing" when innocent people are being slaughtered.

It would be preferable if the organized world community, i.e., the UN Security Council, would take action, but that body's procedures which give Syria's ally Russia a veto prevent that.

Regrettably there is no other sheriff in town to enforce the rules. By virtue of its power, position, and principles, the United States, albeit reluctantly, must put on the sheriff's badge and play that role. Failure of the U.S. to do so in Syria moves the world closer to anarchy.