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Hoyt Hilsman Headshot

On the Brink of War

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The United States is once again on the brink of war in the heart of the Middle East. It seems certain that we will launch an attack on the Syrian regime in the near future, most likely in the form of air strikes on Assad's air force, munitions depots, communications command and other military infrastructure. It is also possible that the U.S. will impose a no-fly zone, although that would be difficult to enforce.

The model for this action seems to be Libya, where a stalemate was developing between Col. Gaddafi's forces and the rebels before the intervention of the United States and its allies. Although it took longer than many observers foresaw, the result was ultimately positive to the extent that it tipped the balance in favor of the rebels, who were primarily homegrown nationalists.

The Syrian civil war is much more complicated, since it not only is unclear whether a victory by the rebels would be positive for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but it also involves a large number of actors who have much greater stakes in the outcome than they did in Libya. The Saudis and the other Gulf States are engaged in a regional conflict with Iran, as is Israel, albeit for different reasons. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are being destabilized by a flood of refugees. And the Russians and Chinese have their own interests in the conflict, especially as it relates to their competition with America.

While the necessity of some kind of military intervention -- if only symbolic in nature -- is now evident, the risks are enormous. The chances for American intervention to spark a wider regional conflict will certainly increase. Much depends on the reaction of Iran, which could range from an attack on Israel to an increase in support for terrorist plots. The Saudis and the Gulf States seem to believe that a showdown with Iran -- whether diplomatic or military -- is inevitable, and they are pouring resources into the area to counter Iranian influence.

Meanwhile, the American public -- weary of war and struggling with a weak economic recovery -- are opposed to military intervention. Prior to the recent chemical weapons attack, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 60 percent of Americans opposed intervention, while only 9 percent would support it. Even when asked if they would support an attack after chemical weapons were used, the respondents opposed intervention by a margin of two to one. It is clear that the Obama administration will have to work hard to gain support for even a limited military intervention.

As we enter into yet another war in the Middle East -- one that could provoke an even larger regional conflict -- it is important for Americans to be clear-eyed in their expectations for our role in the conflict. We should expect the unrest in the Middle East to be a complex and lengthy, perhaps lasting for generations. Too many nations, along with religious, ethnic and political groups, have competing interests in the region for it to be settled by any single military or diplomatic action.

It is also important -- as it was in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya -- to remain focused on the long-term principles and interests of the United States and the international community, and not get caught up in the emotions of the moment. The failures in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and in the struggle against terrorism since 9/11 -- were in large part due to an impulsive desire for revenge and retribution rather than a cool-eyed, objective decision about what was in the best interests both of America and the world.

As we plunge into yet another war in the Middle East, there will certainly be events in the coming weeks and months that will send our blood boiling, horrify our consciences and spur us to find quick and simple solutions. But there will be no simple solutions. We will have to deal with the pain and uncertainty of the region and the suffering that will inevitably occur. There is much we can do to relieve that suffering, but, in the end, we cannot prevent it.