Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Case Against Bombing Syria

Recently I was involved in a back and forth on Facebook between someone who agreed with President's Trump decision to launch cruises missiles into Syria in response to the Assad's Regime's  dropping what appears to be nerve gas on civilians.

I respect my friend's position, and I think she a very intelligent woman who can make up her own mind about these sorts of thing. And have to agree with the idea that Assad and his henchmen are truly vile and evil people, and the monstrous crimes they do day in and day out are truly beyond the pale. And while my friend didn't say this, I'll go so far as to say that it is shameful how little my country has done to help the millions of people displaced by this war, there is so much more we could have done or do now, and the President's kooky attempts at banning Muslims from coming into the country are a national embarrassment and fundamentally idiotic.

So I get where my friend was coming from when it came to Trump's decision. I don't question her opinions when it comes to needing to get more engaged, I'm just very skeptical of the whole idea that this latest round of bombing, or another few rounds of bombings will actually fix anything.

Robert Farley, who's at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, and an avid blogger with the Lawyers Guns And Money set, basically summed up my thoughts when it came to what happened and why Trump's "strategy", such that it is, won't add up to much. (Sorry for breaking blog etiquette with such a YUGE quote, but Bob really hammers the arguments home here):
  • The direct military impact of the attack is trivial. The next big question is how Syrian actors will respond; will the Assad government moderate its tactics, at least insofar as chemical weapons are concerned?  Will rebel groups take heart, and increase their tempo of operations?
  • If Russian personnel were present at the airbase that launched the chemical attacks, then there are some really big questions about how much they knew about Syrian government plans, and when they knew it.  I doubt Assad would have informed the Russians in advance of the attack, but handling procedures for chemical munitions differ considerably from those for dumb bombs; it’s hard to believe that the Russians wouldn’t have noticed something.
  • The Israelis are claiming that they have evidence that Assad ordered the attacks personally.  Take or leave that as you will; for my part, this does not seem to be something that the Israelis would go out of their way to lie about.  Bibi has made every effort to cultivate Putin over the last few years, and it’s not as if the Israelis were ever that enthusiastic about the replacement of Assad.
  • If I’m ISIS I’m very happy today.  The net effect of all of this is less cooperation and more conflict between all of the partners fighting against ISIS.  Whether it will be enough to stave off the offensive on Raqqa is a different question.
  • Good discussions at Lawfare on legality; see here, here, and here.
  • The idea that the Chinese will be intimidated by this does not seem… sound.  The US just conducted a strike that eliminated virtually zero extant Syrian military capability, and that endangered no Americans.  This is not the stuff that strong reputations for toughness, resolve, and credibility are made of.
  • It’s not at all obvious what message the Syrian government is supposed to be taking from this.  Bombing civilians is okay, but chemical agents are a step too far?  Assad is probably fine with that, on balance.  Regime change is back on the table?  Hopefully there’s some backchannel communication designed to clarify US expectations for Moscow and Damascus.
I'll put my thought's another way; is there some hypothetical way for America to use it's awesome military might to try and find a better outcome in Syria? I suppose it's possible. But it's ridiculous to think that President Game Show Host, or the old guy with J. Peterman's haircut and no staff, or the handsome young man who pretends he knows what he's doing and goes on interesting field trips are the ones who can engineer this possible outcome.

Meanwhile the horrible war goes on, but it's not clear to we how this problem of Assad's Regime could be solved with a bombing campaign. Or rather even if it is "solved", it's not clear that the post Assad situation in Syria would be better. There are other options to shooting cruise missiles of course, but as Matt Yglesias pointed out is the logical end of these options is a massive military invasion and a open ended presence to "create stability", which then turns into a reason why a president Cory Booker in 2021 can't have the military withdraw, because that creates chaos.

I suspect my friends' response to this line of argument is to point out the horrible things that have happened, and are happening, and will continue to happen in Syria. These are fair points! I just think the costs and risks outweigh what good more intervention might accomplish.

Then again this could all be moot, President Game Show Host might do something to totally change everything tomorrow.

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