Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Preemptive Antiwar Argument

Note to readers: I know I keep promising a blog post about my trip to South Sudan.  It's coming, I promise.  This post, however, seemed timelier.


The United States will attack the government of Syria this year.

I base this prediction on three premises:
1) U.S. foreign policy interests require that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, is removed from power.
2) The Syrian demonstrators, rebels, and now, yes, terrorist groups, are not strong enough on their own to make him go.
3) The longer we wait, the bloodier the Syrian civil war will become, and the greater the chance of the Syrian resistance becoming radicalized (as in, Al Qaeda-ized.)

For decades now, the Arab states have been divided into two camps: the American camp and the Iranian camp. On the American side – that is, the side of peace with Israel (in practice if not always in treaty form), fighting Islamic terrorism, and keeping Middle East oil flowing peacefully and securely to the rest of the world, are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. On the Iranian side – that is, the side of armed conflict against the Zionists and general resistance to American power – is Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and various Iraqi insurgent groups.

During the Bush years, Sudan and Libya were added to the American side of the ledger (the horrifying dictators who ruled those countries notwithstanding). The battlegrounds were Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. In each of these countries, American- and Iranian-supported forces slaughtered each other in interminable battles for dominance.

Syria is the linchpin of the Iranian-led anti-American alliance. Iran lavishes arms and money on Hamas and Hezbollah; those arms and money get to Lebanon and Palestine through Syria. For decades, the holy grail of American Middle East policy has been to get the Assad regime to “flip” – make peace with Israel and stop supporting terrorism, in exchange for a generous American aid package and the return of the Golan Heights, a tiny but beautiful and water-filled tract of Syrian land that Israel has occupied since 1967. The Assads never accepted the flip, because the political benefits of being the last Arab country standing were always more attractive than American aid.

The Syrian revolution presented an alternative way to get Syria to flip. If the U.S. supported the revolution, the government that replaced Assad might join the American camp and cripple Iran’s influence in the Arab world. Still, Obama did not totally write off hope of friendship with Assad until August, when he called on the Syrian president to step down. At that point, after five months of constant protest, Assad looked weak, and the Obama administration hoped that a small shove would be enough to topple him.

Obama miscalculated. It’s February, and Bashar is still here.

Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that the Syrian revolution has stalemated. All of Bashar’s brutality cannot persuade the protestors to stop protesting or the rebels to stop fighting; if anything, it has only dumped fuel on the fire. But Bashar retains the loyalty of his elite military units, whose commanders must surely know they face certain death if the revolution succeeds, and Syria’s minority communities – Christians, Alawite Muslims, Shiites, and to a lesser extent, Druze and Kurds – all of whom rightly fear a Sunni Islamist takeover of Syria. Because Bashar retains this core of support, he cannot be toppled by massive protests and scattered rebel attacks. This is a prescription for a very long and bloody conflict.

The U.S. has burned all its bridges with the Assad regime. Damascus used to host cordial visits from everyone from Henry Kissinger to Nancy Pelosi and Rick Warren of Purpose-Driven Life fame. (Seriously.) No more. The only way to get Syria to flip sides in the Great Game is to force Assad out.

At this stage in its cold war with Iran, the U.S. desperately needs Syria to flip sides. It’s increasingly clear that, since our troop withdrawal, Iraq has joined Iran’s team. Diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program has hit a dead end, Iran is making outlandish threats and attempting terror attacks from Washington D.C. to Bangkok, and Israel is making a lot of noise about an attack on Iran. (More than usual, that is.)

If Syria flips, Iran loses nearly all its influence in the Arab world, and with it, a large part of its ability to retaliate against an Israeli attack. That might convince them to come back to the negotiating table. If it doesn’t, it’ll make an Israeli attack a much easier task.

In addition, the longer the Syrian civil war continues, and the more it turns into a Sunnis-vs.-everyone else affair, the greater the odds of large parts of the Syrian revolution being coopted by al Qaeda. Since December 23, there have been five suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, which have killed almost a hundred people. U.S. officials believe these are the work of operatives from al Qaeda in Iraq. And why not? Brave Sunnis standing up to a secular, heretical, bloodthirsty dictatorship – this is literally the fight al Qaeda was created for.

Obama took a lot of flak for teaming up with Islamist rebels in Libya, some of whom had ties to al Qaeda. This was actually a pretty sound tactical move. Presuming that Qaddafi’s days were numbered, Obama clearly preferred to have the rebels ushered into power with U.S. help, instead of the rebels succeeding on their own power and owing the U.S. nothing. It’s also safe to assume the Libyan civil war ended much sooner and with fewer casualties thanks to U.S. help.

So: the downfall of Assad is a vital U.S. interest. Assad will not fall by himself. The longer we wait, the worse it will be.

Of course, the U.S. will never get the UN’s (read: China and Russia’s) approval for an attack. So it will probably be a NATO-led action, like the war in Kosovo.

It’s all very rational.

So don’t be surprised when CNN reports that the Pentagon has begun reviewing military options for Syria.


Is this a good idea?

Heck no.

The coming U.S. war on Syria is a logical corollary to our cold war with Iran, which is a logical extension of our half-century quest to keep the Middle East, with its strategic location and oil fields, stable and secure.

The wars with Iraq, far from being “wars of choice” or “dumb,” as Illinois state senator Barack Obama put it in 2002, were also logical and necessary outcomes of long-established U.S. policy in the Middle East.

They also cost well over a hundred thousand people their lives, and made permanent refugees out of millions more.

Start with a bad premise, and you will get a bad conclusion. The premise that it is the job of the United States to maintain order in the Middle East is a very, very, VERY bad premise. And as scary as an Iranian power might be to our policymakers, it’s difficult to imagine that it will lead to more deaths than the Iraq War, (or the Lebanese civil war, or the Algerian civil war) or more hatred than the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or more dictatorships than the Arab world has now. And all of those things are direct consequences of American policy.

War is unpredictable. Iraq was many times worse than we anticipated. Libya was a sweeping triumph in retrospect. What will the Syrian war look like? Who knows? Best case scenario is regime collapse followed by liberal democracy and economic development. Worst-case scenario is massive civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide of minorities, followed by Islamic theocracy. That’s a pretty big margin of error, and one that no nation has the right to take responsibility for.

Make no mistake – my loyalty is firmly with the brave Syrian liberals who started this revolution. Bashar is a monster, and there will be no justice and no peace as long as he’s around. But thanks largely to his atrocities, the Syrian revolution, in my analysis, has twisted into the worst of possible outcomes - a zero-sum power struggle along largely ethnic lines. Peace is not on the horizon because both the Sunni rebels and the regime and its loyal minority groups rightly see themselves as fighting for their lives.

If there’s one thing that could make this worse, it’s American bombs.

So. I have made my prediction. If I’m wrong, as my roommate Matt thinks (he has a better sense for domestic politics than I), I will happily run around with egg on my face. If I’m right, we need to be ready to fight to stop this war from happening. We owe it to the Syrians to stay the frick out of it.

“The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be still.”
- Exodus 14:14

"Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD."
- Psalm 27:3, 14


  1. I can't speak for others, but I don't think I would've respected you any less, if you would have actually said "f**k." I'm still letting this post brew in my mind, but my first impression is about as impassioned as you seem to be about it, and I don't have anywhere near as much time and energy invested in the Syrian people or their politics as you do. The f-bomb fits, man. If there's ever an appropriate use, this is it. But, of course, that's not really the point of this comment, haha. Great post again, Joel.

  2. Thanks, Matt. Don't worry, I'll break out the f-bomb when it's needed. :)