Monday, April 17, 2017

Syria and Monday Morning Quarterbacking: Should we Have Intervened?

By almost every measure, the civil war in Syria has been a disaster.  Even apart from the remarkably large loss of life by Syrians, the humanitarian disaster, and the outrageous human rights violations by the Syrian regime, the war has had quite serious adverse consequences for the United States and its allies.  The resulting refugee crisis has flooded Europe with refugees--far more than could be accommodated (and checked) by normal refugee processing.  This has changed the politics of Europe profoundly.  The war in Syria is, in large measure, why the Islamic State was able to take territory in Iraq and Syria, which it has used to successfully encourage  lone wolf terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe.  Finally, the war has given Russia and Iran increased geopolitical power in the Middle East.

Given all of this, it must have been a profound mistake for the Obama Administration not to have militarily intervened in the civil war, right?  Not so fast.  Even in 20/20 hindsight, it is not at all obvious that the situation would have been better had the U.S. used military force.

Critics of the Obama Administration point to several military options for intervention.  These included one-time retaliatory military strikes in response to particular human rights abuses (such as the use of chemical weapons), the use of  a no fly zone, the creation of "safe zones" on Syrian territory, and outright military support of some faction or the other of the Syrian rebels.

For several reasons, I remain deeply skeptical that any of these options would have improved the situation in Syria.

First, the recent history of military intervention hardly offers much support for the notion that U.S. military intervention in the Middle East improves matters.  We were initially successful in enforcing regime change in Libya, but the result has been a failed state where ISIS and other extremists thrive.  We were initially successful in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but to call the result in Iraq (including the rise of ISIS) anything but a disaster would be disingenuous.  In each case, the complicated tribal and sectarian divisions made military intervention--in the long term at least--the wrong solution.  Most of the military leaders I worked with in the Pentagon, by the way, recognized this, and were opposed to intervention in Syria.

Second, with the exception of a one-time missile strike, most of the options above would have required a risky and extensive military campaign that would have required air strikes on hundreds of targets in Syria--often in areas near civilians.  Syrian has a robust and modern air defense system (thanks, Russia), and any military option that required that we have unhampered access to Syrian territory or air space would have first required that we destroy the air defense system.  I am fully confident that our Air Force and Navy would be up to the job, but the level of violence required would have been shocking.  (This was likely the reason, by the way, that Trump used missiles, and not aircraft, for his strike on Syria).

Third, lest we forget, at the time military intervention was under active consideration, there was a complete absence of support by the American people (and much of  the international community for that matter).  Most voices in Congress were opposed.  The British Parliament actually voted against intervention. And polling showed little appetite by the American public for another war in the Middle East.  Given that most of these options required some sustained action over many years to be effective, the lack of support by the American people was critical.

(And even apart from all of the above, the legal justification for military intervention under both international law and U.S. domestic law was dubious at best.  A sustained military operation would have required congressional consent under the War Powers Act, and the U.N. Charter does not permit unilateral military action absent a clear self-defense rationale).

To be clear, I still find the situation in Syria very troubling, and all of us should consider whether this was a case where some military action was warranted.  I, for one, remain, deeply skeptical,


  1. Thanks for the post , things here are really complicated , as hell so , yet , some few remarks :

    First , you presume , that the only method for American military intervention , would have been , to destroy first , by air strikes , hundreds of targets in Syria , and then you state : " often in areas near civilians" . Well , this is not the only method , this is the most preferable American method , but " the US is not helpless " , it could exercise many others . The Israelis for example , frequently strike there , without any preparation of such . Concerning civilians, well, GPS guided bombs, cruise missiles (like recently In Syria, by Trump, would be sufficient, in order to avoid or minimize civilian casualties). So, militarily, that wasn't a substantial obstacle.

    Second , one should not forget . The greatest Terrorist attack in history ( Twin towers ) took place , before any disintegration of the Arab states . This is a hell of simple and vital fact !! today , no Arab state , can really , officially , harbor terrorists , like had been done , by the Taliban regime , in Afghanistan at the time . It has created other problems of course , but , not so sure , what is and was better for the US ( distinguished from Europe ) . Really complicated .

    Third : One should not forget : the US perspective is one thing , yet , the Arab peoples , is another . George Bush ( junior , and effectively , the Neo conservatives ) had given them , excellent chance , to rise against dictators , and take their fate in their hands , and establish democracies . Whatsoever , that is was their wish , uprising simply , and throw out dictators . They have proven , that they are willing to die for it . So , desirable , good or bad , depends upon The observer , and surly , those who are victims , means : The Arab peoples . So far , the game in not yet over , let's wait and see , how deep is the sea . It is yet , an ongoing situation , " god knows the wind path " and the conclusive outcome of it .

    Finally , the best , and easiest and most immediate thing for the US to do , for contributing to global order , and prevention of terror , is simply to become party to the Rome statute . So simple and effective , and yet …. Or reforming the Security council protocols . So simple , as an apple !!


  2. Just clarification to the last point made in my comment above ( US joining the " Rome statute " ) :

    The US state department as we know , monitors and report on human rights violation all over the world . It does exercise huge pressures in this regard ( Sanctions for example ) .

    If the US would become party to the " Rome statute " and exercise pressure on states worldwide to join the convention , the prosecutor of the ICC ( international criminal court ) would be able , to prosecute and investigate , terror related states and suspects ( Like the IS in Iraq and Syria , this is because the latter for example , is not party member to the convention ) .

    Also , one of the possibilities , is without being party member to the convention ( Rome convention ) is when , the Security council , refers the case to the prosecutor of the ICC ( like the cases of : Sudan , and Libya , in both cases , they are not parties to the Rome statute , and yet , investigated and prosecuted ) . So :

    If the UN charter would be amended ( by US pressure ) then , No veto would be exercised by one of the superpowers , if case is referred to the court .

    Very efficient , for tackling terror all over the world ….. one can read here about such problem of the prosecutor ( it is far greater more complicated , but just generally speaking ) here , investigating and prosecuting IS and so forth :