04/26/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

The Syria Conundrum

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Some prominent politicians, like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, would have you believe that we should have been involved in the civil war in Syria two years ago. While they are not yet advocating that American troops be introduced, lesser solutions are still fraught with difficulty, and many questions remain unanswered.

The crisis du jour revolves around whether the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, and, if so, they have crossed a line that requires our intervention, especially since we don't want extremists to get their hands on those weapons if they win. Complicating the situation is the fact that the White House has, in fact, said that use of chemical weapons does indeed mean that this red line has been crossed.

Were Israel to face extinction due to concerted Islamic military action, would anyone be surprised to see it use nuclear weapons as a last resort? Sunnis in Syria have sworn to exterminate the Alawite minority to which Syrian president Assad belongs. Without suggesting that the use of chemical weapons is appropriate, is their use surprising if the government faces literal extinction? Other questions flow from this issue. If it is critical for us to secure chemical stockpiles, why now and not before? Wasn't the danger of extremists getting their hands on the weapons just as acute before the Syrian government's apparent use of them? And if nations are even allowed to possess these weapons, how will we deal with a possible rebel victory? Are we going to tell the new government that it was okay for Assad to possess these weapons, but, sorry, you can't have them?

A favorite idea of McCain and his people is that of a no-fly zone and sanctuary for Syrian refugees. Where? If the zone is to be in Syria, we will need to engage Syrian anti-aircraft defenses that have been honed against the Israeli Air Force. We can defeat those defenses, perhaps easily. Regardless, are we willing to lose planes? Even one? What about pilots? Will we send Special Forces or other troops to rescue pilots? We should also consider that such a mission would have to be paid for during sequester, and when other uses are already being found for Overseas Contingency Operations funds.

Syria hawks indicate that we must do something about the slaughter of civilians and other human rights violations. There has been little airplay about atrocities committed by rebels other than occasional comments by human rights groups. This begs the question: If the rebels win and start slaughtering Shiites, what will we do about it? And maybe even more immediate, what if the rebels win and the wrong guys appear to be getting control of the government?

There is no question that the situation stinks. Innocent civilians are being slaughtered by the thousands, probably by both sides. The refugee situation is out of control. Jordan is being inundated, and the Jordanian monarchy, a close ally of the United States, has enough problems without having to deal with the influx. (This is exactly what China worries about should North Korea collapses, and look at how much bigger China is!) No one has a handle on the composition of the rebel group and who would emerge after a rebel victory. A Sunni victory could destabilize both Lebanon and the Syrian-Israeli border. On and on.

If ever a situation cried out for United Nations action, this is it. There are human rights violations galore, and the consequences of this civil war have become regional. Whether Russia would continue to front for Assad in the Security Council as China does for North Korea remains to be seen. The pressure on Russia to play ball will be much greater, as people are actually dying.

What form should this intervention take? Humanitarian aid would be the minimum. The other end of the spectrum would be to go all in and send a peacekeeping force sanctioned to use force. The UN could also implement intermediate steps, like the no-fly zone.

Some pundits would say, "Forget about it." Edward Luttwak, in a piece for Foreign Affairs some years ago, advocated for allowing such wars to continue to a conclusion as the only way to bring lasting peace. There is a logic to this, but, unfortunately, it doesn't often apply to the Middle East. Others, interventionists, want human suffering stopped immediately, but the fact is that measures to end fighting, such as we undertook in the Balkans, merely move local populations to the next stage of misery and don't really solve regional problems.

Still others worry that the longer the United States does nothing, the more we lose credibility. Really? We just fought two useless wars, have failed to control either Iran or North Korea, and can't get our own house in order. This isn't 1946. We're a critical player, maybe the most critical player, but we no longer rule the world. There are even some people who couldn't care less what we think.

While there are no easy answers, we should stick to one principle, to avoid unilateral action. The situation in Syria should not be allowed to continue, but, by now, we should have learned that we're not going to impose a solution. Action that involves us, our European allies, and, most critically, Arab countries, is the only way to proceed. We need to alleviate the suffering. However, keep in mind those unanswered questions. It is likely that no good deed in Syria will go unpunished.