Obama administration policy toward Syria is a slow train wreck. Unremitting pressure from war-minded elites is pushing President Barack Obama closer to military intervention in the bloody civil war. Yet getting involved would be a fool's errand.
Nevertheless, America's putative allies appear to believe that they are entitled to U.S. support. The president should disabuse them of this dangerous notion.
War should be a matter of necessity, not choice. Of course, the Sirens' call of intervention usually promises quick and humane results. Alas, Americans seem to be constantly rediscovering that military operations rarely go as planned and the costs of conflict usually are far higher than expected.
When the much maligned "Vietnam Syndrome" ended in the 1980s, U.S. presidents again began marching off to war. But Ronald Reagan's meddling in Lebanon's civil war, Bill Clinton's misadventures in Somalia and the Balkans, and George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and occupation of Afghanistan offer bloody reminders that war is not just another policy option.
There is no reason to believe that Syria would be any different. Indeed, that nation is distinctly unpromising for nation-building: a messy civil war with a weakened family dictatorship attempting to retain control of an artificial nation increasingly fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines. Even direct action to oust President Bashar al-Assad likely would not stop the killing. As in Iraq, the end of formal hostilities would only trigger the next round.
Yet Syrian insurgents and their supporters not only hope for Western aid. They expect it and are angry when Washington fails to act. Last August, reported the Washington Post, America "increasingly is being viewed with suspicion and resentment for its failure to offer little more than verbal encouragement to the revolutionaries." One rebel spokesman said: "America will pay a price for this. America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don't trust them at all."
Individual rebels complained that the U.S. could have aided their cause and prevented battlefield victories by the government. Analysts warned that Washington was losing its opportunity to promote the emergence of a democratic and secular Syria.
Only limited humanitarian assistance followed, to the great frustration of the insurgents. In February the administration promised additional non-military aid. Secretary of State John Kerry called this "a significant steeping-up of the policy." The insurgents did not agree.
Opposition leader Adib Shishakly complained to the Post that "We expected more, but hopefully this is a positive start." He emphasized that the rebels were "absolutely disappointed" at the lack of military assistance. Indeed, he added, Washington should "at least give us the tools to protect ourselves." An insurgent spokesman told the Post "we do not need food at the moment. We would rather have weapons to defend ourselves and our children."
Washington recently promised to provide weapons to the rebels. That decision came in response to charges that Damascus used small amounts of chemical weapons. Yet doubts about that claim persist, since the government has little incentive to deploy chemical weapons except in large quantities as a last resort. Some analysts suspect that insurgents used captured stores in an attempt to induce Western intervention.
Even after deciding the administration was slow in acting. When Secretary Kerry visited Syrian refugees in mid-July, they berated him for the delay. He promised to "take your voices and concerns back with me to Washington."
Refugees understandably wanted the globe's sole superpower to overthrow their tormentor. Yet they acted as if Washington was supposed to represent them rather than Americans.
One insistent refugee was quoted by the Wall Street Journal: "We are not satisfied with the Americans' actions. We are only hearing words. We need active steps!" The Journal cited another one asking "What are you waiting for? At least impose a no-fly zone or an embargo." Another refugee said: "The U.S., as a superpower, can change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes after you return to Washington."
Rebels reacted similarly. Complained Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of the Supreme Military Council: "we don't understand why our friends delay and delay and delay and hesitate to support us." Moreover, "At the end of the day we are not getting any kind of military support. We told them repeatedly what we need. But it is just hopeless." Mosab Abu Qutada, a rebel spokesman, said: "We have honestly lost hope. We were promised a lot before, and they never kept their promises."
Samir Nashar, a businessman and member of the Syrian Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, complained: "as always, the West's promises are bigger than its actions." A rebel fighter was quoted by Reuters as deriding U.S. excuses: "what is important is that they are not helping us." Nashar complained: "I think it's a policy aimed to manage the crisis, not to help the Free Syrian Army on the ground." Another combatant suspected that Washington simply wanted to keep both sides busy fighting.
The insurgent want list is long. When the administration announced more humanitarian assistance, Gen. Idris opined: "We don't want food and drink and we don't want bandages. When we are wounded, we want to die. The only thing we want is weapons. We need anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles."
Louay Meqdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said: "We need short-range ground-to-air missiles, [shoulder-fired] MANPADS, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and ammunition. We also need communications equipment, bullet-proof vests and gas masks." Moreover, "It is necessary to establish secure areas and impose no-fly zones in the south or north." Finally, the rebels required "a safe haven" to stop the regime from using "Scud missiles with unconventional warheads to shell liberated areas." In another statement he declared: "If they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference? They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone."
One is tempted to ask, anything else? Maybe a few B-52s plus an aircraft carrier and a couple of ICBMs?
Some Syrians seem inclined to blame the U.S. for their difficulties, even though Syria is one of the few Middle Eastern nations which never has been an American client state. Last fall some Syrian protestors made their theme: "America, has your spite not been sated by our blood?" More recently, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that "almost every Syrian I talked to thinks [the fighting over Aleppo] is America's fault."
In February the Syrian National Council announced that it would boycott U.S.-organized peace talks to protest inadequate assistance. After government missile attacks on Aleppo, the Syrian National Coalition announced: "In protest of this shameful international stand [meaning the West's failure to act], the coalition has decided to suspend its participation in the Rome conference for the Friends of Syria and decline the invitations to visit Russia and the United States."
In June Gen. Idris proclaimed "If we don't receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the round, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva" for an international meeting intended to bring together the opposition, Assad government, and interested nations. The insurgents changed their mind after a phone call from Secretary Kerry and, explained Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, promises of "qualitative aid" from America and Britain.
The strangest reaction -- if one believes Sen. John McCain, who has campaigned relentlessly for American intervention -- is a threat to attack the U.S. if it does not give in to rebel demands. No doubt some Syrians will remember who their friends are, though that reaction presumably runs both ways.
But what of those who want America to intervene? According to the Associated Press, a refugee complained to Kerry: "You and the U.S. government look to Israel with respect. Cannot you do the same with the children of Syria?" Another warned "We will return to Syria and we will remember everything." The New York Times interviewed Syrians who threatened to "turn their backs in return," pointing to U.S. support for Libyan insurgents and invasion of Iraq, suggesting that oil was the motivation for America's different response.
Sen. McCain went much further, however, arguing that "the Syrian people are angry and bitter at the United States" for failing to intervene. Indeed, he added: "We are sowing the wind in Syria and we are going to reap the whirlwind." Why? A teacher allegedly told him: "This next generation of children will take revenge on those that did not help them."
It's a ludicrous claim coming from someone who has worked to raise insurgents' unrealistic expectations of armed intervention and, more important, doesn't recognize the significant and frequent blowback from intervention. That is, when U.S. forces kill, bomb, invade, and occupy, they inevitably create enemies. And the latter, like Osama bin Laden, often seek revenge. Nothing justifies their attacks on civilians, but there is an obvious logic: if they perceive America as being at war with them, they try to strike back. The examples and victims are many, ranging from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires to Sri Lanka, Israel, and Iraq and on to America.
When, however, have combatants lashed out violently against those who failed to help them? The world is filled with conflicts in which Washington did not -- thankfully! -- intervene. Yet there is no known act of, say, Tamil terrorism over America's failure to support independence from the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka.
Moreover, presumed gratitude toward America for intervening has not protected Americans from attack in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. In the case of Syria, most of the world's 200 nations have not assisted the insurgents. America is bigger and more capable, but not the only state able to arm/aid rebel forces. In fact, angry Syrians interviewed by the New York Times vented against Europe as well as America, but none threatened violent retaliation.
Moreover, insurgents ultimately will have more on their minds than attacking the U.S. If they win, they will have a country to rebuild and rule (and, unfortunately, local opponents to jail, try, and execute). If the opposition loses, its members will have to evade and survive a vengeful Assad regime. They would more likely look for ways to escape to America than to launch attacks on America.
If terrorism is on their minds, then perhaps Washington should target rather than assist the rebels. However sympathetic the opposition and its grievances, there is no justification for terrorism. If the insurgents really would attack the U.S. for not helping, then the Obama administration should consider acting preemptively. Thankfully, of course, Sen. McCain's purported threat almost certainly doesn't exist.
In any case, providing rebels with light weapons is a foolish half-step which would further entangle Washington without ending the conflict. An interventionist Greek Chorus then would insist that U.S. credibility was on the line and demand further steps, including direct military action such as a no fly zone. Since even that measure likely would not be enough to oust Assad, the war would continue, along with proposals for further escalation.
Instead, the U.S. should follow a policy of peace. On very rare occasions war is necessary. However, none of America's recent interventions -- other than the initial ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan -- involved any degree of necessity. Most were frivolous, foolish, or both. The conflict in Syria is a human tragedy, but there is no security interest at stake for Americans who would do the paying and especially the dying from intervening.
The expectations of Syria's opposition are another reason to stay out. People around the world increasingly appear to view U.S. military intervention as some kind of entitlement. In Syria, it seems, they feel free to threaten Americans if Washington chooses not to risk its own citizens in combat.
Washington should reeducate the rest of the world about the purpose of the U.S. military. It is to protect Americans, not remake the globe. As John Quincy Adams declared nearly two centuries ago, the U.S. should be "the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all." But America "is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Americans should not go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy."
Especially today, Washington should stop making new enemies who then want to attack the U.S. The Obama administration should not turn Syria's tragedy into America's tragedy.