The current issue of The Economist again, as it has in the past, urges the United States to get over its war-weariness and intercede in Syria's horrendous civil war. Other than the fact that war-weariness isn't something you get over like a cold, there remain reasons for staying out of the Middle East's premier conflagration du jour. In favor of involvement is the casualty list that has passed 30,000.
The Assad government has certainly lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world, but it is literally fighting for its life. The Shiite Alawites, the minority that runs Syria, have been told in no uncertain terms that they face mass executions when the Sunnis get control. This leaves little room for the government moderating its military actions, and the chemical weapons that cast a pall over the proceedings will become an ever-greater temptation. So what should we do?
Arming the rebels is a hit-and-miss proposition. We continue to have no surety about who we'd be dealing with. One thing that's become clear is that there are ever more foreign fighters joining the rebels, and this never bodes well for our interests. We've had enough experience arming friends-turned-enemies to know that we can't be cavalier about this. The future targets may not even be our people, but could be Israelis, Turks, Lebanese of various flavors, or Saudis, to name a few. Since the amount of munitions we'd have to supply to make a difference could haunt us in the future, it might be prudent not to hand them over.
The measure considered to be "the least we can do," enforcing a no-fly zone, isn't that minor an affair. It would require neutralizing an anti-aircraft defense honed against the Israeli air force, an adequate surrogate for preparing against a NATO or U.S. air campaign. Maybe we crush them quickly, but maybe we don't. Air operations are expensive, lost aircraft more so, and bailing pilots might well land in the wrong place. We might also kill a few Russian technicians. This cannot be undertaken lightly.
Fortunately, even the most hawkish members of our government are not suggesting we send troops, other than their involvement in helping to deliver humanitarian aid. This could be done in areas on the Syria-Turkey border that are away from the fighting, but should be carefully prosecuted to avoid the impression that our people are doing any more than that.
These are the easier aspects of the problem. The tough stuff has to do with the religious and geo-political implications of anything that goes on in the region, as we are amply aware. We also have history against us. We feel we did well by getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but do we know as yet what we left behind? Iraq is still a mess, and many of our Foreign Service officers indicate a definite sense of unease that comes with the realization that sectarian difficulties have by no means been resolved. Afghanistan requires no description.
Changes in Syria are likely to set off a chain reaction of some sort. Israel would be concerned about the uncertain attitudes of a new government. A Sunni takeover would make Hezbollah nervous and Lebanon messier in general. The Kurds of Syria would be free to make common cause with those of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, possibly resulting in a renewed quest for a Kurdistan that would try to keep possession of the oil wells in northern Iraq. Iran, in its quest for regional hegemony, would become more nervous through its loss of an ally. All of these possibilities would have implications for Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
We have historically demonstrated how difficult it is to divine how such scenarios will play out, and there is no likelihood of greater success this time around. The ideal solution for Syria, however unlikely, would be a brokered settlement that would allow Assad and his people to transition out with whatever booty they can carry. This still would leave a Syria with an uncertain future and a leadership of mysterious leanings, but it would, at least, allow for a shot at a more gradual regional adjustment to the new landscape. If we're to get involved, this is where our efforts should lie. Let's leave this one to the diplomats, and give our armed forces a pass for a change.