05/10/2013 05:48 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

The Costs of War -- Toning Down the Rhetoric on Syria

The hawks have begun circling around the figure of the recalcitrant Bashar al-Assad. From presidential "red lines" to congressional leaders, to neo-conservative and neo-liberal policy-wonks, the argument for regime change is becoming daily op-ed and chattering class fodder. We naturally want to stop the slaughter of civilians. We also cannot afford to allow chemical weapons to be used with impunity, which could encourage others to build and/or use their own stockpiles when backed into a corner. We long ago learned that hope is not a method, and that appeasement cannot secure the peace. Yet we should not underestimate the costs of war.

Surely, the humanitarian crisis is grave. While we can point to past inaction in genocidal campaigns in places like Rwanda and Sudan as either precedent for non-intervention or justification to do so, we have proven in places like the Balkans and Iraq, that internecine conflicts are not resolved on the cheap. In fact, literature on mediation of conflict suggests that without a clear winner on either side, such a peace may ultimately devolve back into conflict as unresolved issues move back to the fore.

The potential use of chemical weapons is likewise horrific, and is an appropriate red line, but for what response? There was a time, before al-Qa'ida and the al-Nursa Front became dominant players in the Syrian opposition, that an air campaign and no-fly zone would have been appropriate. It would have been more costly than Libya, with Syria's highly sophisticated air defenses. It also would not have been sanctioned by the United Nations, and would have put the U.S. and its partners at odds with Russia, but it would have been the right thing to do. Now, however, it is hard to see how military intervention short of an invasion and massive occupation could possibly bring stability to Syria. More likely, it will hasten what will likely be a post-Assad clash between Sunni Salafists and Shia hardliners that will extend from Damascus to Beirut and Baghdad. Arming the "good" opposition forces is not a real option -- 60 years of covert operations gone awry should teach us that we are not very perceptive when it comes to selecting the "right people." The folks pressing that option are the same ones who shopped Ahmed Chalibi around Washington in 2002, claiming we would be celebrated as liberators in an invasion of Iraq. We should not be so naïve this time around -- after a tremendous expense of blood and treasure, we are living witnesses to the failure of nation building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A colleague, Sarwar Kashmeri, has argued that the Bush-Baker-Scowcroft model of coalition building for the first Gulf War should serve as a template for action in Syria. There are certainly lessons to be learned from the administration of George H.W. Bush. The Bush National Security Team articulated very narrow objectives and avoided mission creep. Those objectives stopped short of a full-blown invasion of Iraq, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had utilized chemical weapons against Iraqi citizens in the years prior just prior to his invasion of Kuwait. Containment was the policy of choice, regardless of how loathsome a character occupied the presidential palace in Baghdad.

Such is our case here. As unpalatable as it may seem, we must do our best to contain the Assad regime. We can make a statement by pressing for Assad's indictment at the International Criminal Court, ensuring he becomes effectively marooned in Syria. To do anything further at this juncture is to push over a tenuous house of cards. As much as regime change in Libya has provided al-Qa'ida in the Mahgreb and its franchisees a safehaven, so surely will Syria become the operating ground of al-Qa'ida. We do not want to be the ones who light the tinderbox of a coming Sunni and Shia conflagration. As much as we want to help, and take a stand again brutality and chemical weapons use, we would be wise to take the council of Erasmus on the costs of war:

"Even the most just of wars brings with it a train of evils...when [he] has made his calculations and reckoned up the total of all [the] woes [of war], then let him say to himself: Shall I alone be the cause of so much woe? Shall so much human blood, so many widows, so many grief-stricken households, so many childless old people, so many made undeservedly poor, the total ruin of morality, law and religion: shall all this be laid at my door?"

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author. They do not
reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the
United States Air Force, or Air University.