Attack on Syria: Wrong effort, wrong time against the wrong enemy

A Shi'ite Muslim places his foot upon an effigy symbolizing the U.S. and the U.S. national flag, while protesting with others against the Arab League and possible U.S. attacks on Syria, in Peshawar September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz (PAKISTAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) (REUTERS)

The cruise missiles of August have become the wait-and-sees of September.

U.S. President Barack Obama has switched from a “decider” to a “ditherer” president. To be sure, there are problems with having a “decider” — figuratively, George W. Bush lies face down in the sands of Iraq. But there are also perils in dither, epitomized by the mildly salacious aphorism, “Shit or get off the pot.”

But military attack on Syria would be the wrong effort at the wrong time against the wrong enemy.

Congressional review/approval of any U.S. military action kicks the can down the road until mid-September. Obama’s forced reconsideration of unilateral executive action comes against the backdrop of British parliamentary rejection of military action and intensely negative U.S. domestic polling.

There is a blunt realization that other regional actors have larger dogs in the fight; specifically, we were not attacked a la Pearl Harbor; an ally was not attacked a la Cold War NATO; Syria is not providing safe haven for terrorists that attacked the United States a la Taliban Afghanistan harboring al-Qaeda/Bin-Laden terrorists.

Consequently, there is a chance Congress may save Obama from himself (as well as permitting him to escape forward from his “red line” box by blaming Congress for U.S. inaction.)

It is not that we lack reasons not to act. There are so many shortcomings to military intervention in Syria that one fears running short of electrons before ending the compilation:

  • At the limited military level bruited about, it will not end the war or significantly limit Assad’s combat capabilities;

  • It will not advance the generally stated Western objective of “regime change” to remove Assad;

  • The “intelligence” associated with the conclusion that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons is arguable;

  • Even if accurate, it is unlikely to stop chemical weapons use if the regime has already used them since the strikes will not be directed against CW stockpiles, etc;

  • No matter how “surgical” there will be blood--civilian blood;

  • Intervention would be virtually without significant allies (fewer than in the “coalition of the willing” that fought in Iraq in 2003) and without UN endorsement (provided for the 1991 response to the Saddam Hussein Kuwait invasion). U.S. regional popularity might descent from current single digits into negative numbers.

To be sure Assad is unsavory; however, it is interesting to recall that when he assumed power from his father in 2000, he was regarded as a potential reformer. He appeared content to run a personalized dictatorship, less ostensibly brutal than that of his father who reportedly killed/gassed upwards of 10-20,000 in Hama in 1982, destroying the local Muslim Brotherhood and killing thousands of civilians in the process. Assad is no Saddam Hussein who fed opponents (alive) through wood chippers. And with a loyal army, a significant part of the population in support, allies providing weapons and fighters (Hezbollah, Russia, Iran), Assad may well prevail — absent “boots on the ground” intervention.

Nor are the underdog rebels choir boys and convent girls. The itemization of their atrocities both against Assad’s soldiers and regime supporters is shorter than the list of those Assad has killed, but shorter because the rebels haven’t had heavy weapons or a chance to extract vengeance.

[ Previous DvsD: Only the military can prevent Egypt from becoming another Iraq ]

Who Has Used Chemical Weapons? The charge that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on Aug. 21, killing 1,429 civilians (not 1,428 or 1,430) has been used as the proximate rationale for U.S. military strikes. Yet, the question regarding who used chemical weapons is not definitively answered. We dismiss out of hand, probably correctly, Syrian/Russian denials accompanied by Syrian government claims to have found chemical weapon equipment in rebel occupied areas. Yet we also deliberately stare past a UN Inquiry Commission member statement in May saying there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not incontrovertible proof …” that the rebels had used these weapons.

So forgive my skepticism regarding the definitive “intelligence” cited by Secretary of State John Kerry of Syrian complicity in chemical weapon use leaves me remembering the “slam dunk” affirmation by then-CIA director that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Having spent a career creating, working with, and using “intelligence,” I drank the Kool-Aid on weapons of mass destruction when offered it by then Secretary of State Colin Powell. Thus another aphorism: A cat that sat on a hot stove never sat on a hot stove again — or a cold one.

The United States need not to be punisher-in-chief. There are other actors with sufficient capability for any attack. We should defer to them to inflict — or not — such sanctions.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.