Saving Syria -- and Ourselves

America needs to plot a middle path for military intervention.

Last night, the many contradictions in Barack Obama's strategy toward the Syrian conflict finally came into sharp focus. He reiterated his commitment to deterring any further use of chemical weapons, but said nothing at all about the Assad regime continuing to kill the innocent by more conventional means. No mention was made that, since the sarin attack three weeks ago, regime forces have kept up their offensives against the rebels throughout Syria, inflicting heavy casualties. In a war in which the death toll has now reached well above 100,000, the president's policy does nothing to stop continued use of the weapons that have already accounted for 99 percent of the killing. Last time I checked, deliberate targeting of noncombatants was still a war crime -- whether caused by chemical or conventional munitions.

But there is something even more troubling than the president's too-narrow view about exactly when the killing of innocents requires a response: His speech last night made clear his belief that "we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force." This is a most curious admission, given that he and so many in his administration have been saying for more than two years that "Assad must go." A rationale for threatening military action in retaliation for WMD use is, as the president noted, to shore up American credibility as a world power. What does it do to our credibility when, after years of tub-thumping for regime change, the frank admission is made that the commander-in-chief doesn't believe he has the power to tip the balance in a civil war? Let's just say it doesn't help -- and may result in Assad really declaring open season on the rebels now. The president is particularly confusing on this point, given that the United States and NATO relatively recently made a decisive difference in the Libyan civil war -- with, as administration members now intone like a mantra, "no boots on the ground." Thus, the problem seems more one of will than capability. Still, reluctance to act in concert with our rhetoric is quite damaging to credibility.

The obsessive attention to keeping our servicemembers well out of harm's way is paradoxical as well. If a cause is, as President Obama said last night of the Syrian crisis, "so plainly just," the question then must be, "how just before you are willing to risk any soldiers' lives?" Americans have fought and died in many conflicts that featured far less moral clarity than the Syrian situation -- with the 60,000 Americans killed in Vietnam heading up that list. If the cause is just, the most effective military means should be pursued, not those deemed most acceptable in political terms. To be fair, the president may be acting out of an admirable reluctance to go to war at all. His speech hinted at this when he said: "I've spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars.... Our troops are out of Iraq, our troops are coming home from Afghanistan." The problem with these statements, though, is that the president, so focused on ending our involvement in overseas conflicts, is willing to do so even if the wars in those places rage on. We are out of Iraq today, but al Qaeda is back and the country is burning. And if we ever pull completely out of Afghanistan, heaven help the Afghans.

Given all the aforementioned contradictions and paradoxes, it should be abundantly clear that the Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at averting an American attack by calling for placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control is something of a master stroke. Assuming acceptance of the Russian proposal by all sides -- Damascus has already agreed -- the process will take a long time to carry out. This will be time during which the war that Bashar al-Assad is currently in the process of winning can be won without fear of outside military intervention in support of the rebels. In this case, stand by to see a continuing stream of fearful images of Syrians suffering at the regime's hands. And if the president finds, eventually, that he can take no more, and decides to launch his envisioned sharp but limited bombardment, Syrian insurgents are going to suffer more at the hands of a wounded regime that is nevertheless still in power.

Wise heads in the White House have no doubt parsed this problem, which prompts one to wonder whether the real plan is to hit regime forces very hard, turning the tide in this conflict. As the president noted in his speech, our military "doesn't do pinpricks." But if this is really the direction in which we're headed, then the problem of our pursuing the same war aim as al Qaeda pops up. As Nibras Kazimi presciently pointed out in his Syria Through Jihadist Eyes, published just before the war, al Qaeda and other zealots see the Assad regime as "the perfect enemy." Defeating the "intelligence barons and soldiers who run the country," as Kazimi labels them, is a goal of many -- not only jihadists. But keeping an al Qaeda-friendly government from power after the fall of the regime would require greater military involvement in Syria, and for a long time.

Given that President Obama's strategy will not relieve the suffering of the Syrian people if the military action he proposes is too light, and that our principal enemy, al Qaeda, will reap great dividends if the action taken is heavy enough to topple the Assad regime, the logical thing for Congress and the American people to ask should be: "Is there a middle way to proceed?" Those with memories of Clinton-era strategy will frame the question in terms of "triangulation."

What would a third way look like? If the goal is the protection of the Syrian people -- the "plainly just cause" to which the president alluded -- then the military action taken should start simply with giving air cover to areas controlled by anti-regime forces. This would prevent Assad's air force from bombarding these people, and protection of this airspace would not require a lengthy suppression of regime air defenses. If Assad used his long-range missiles instead of attack aircraft, then counter-missile fire would be used against the regime's launchers. And if Assad resorted again to chemical weapons, then the case for a more full-bodied response would be far easier to make. Russia and Iran would have little choice but to cut Assad adrift if he used WMD yet again.

The attractiveness of this middle-way alternative to the president's plan lies in its conception of "military intervention" as being about using intervening forces to shore up rebel defenses, not to strike immediately at the regime. Bashar al-Assad would thus have what the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling called, in his classic Strategy of Conflict, the "last clear chance" to avoid a catastrophic escalation of violence. This approach, ratcheting up the violence only if Assad tried to do so first, would leave room for diplomatic efforts to bring the war to an end. One possible outcome might be the enactment of a ceasefire, followed by a negotiated settlement that would move the country more toward democracy while keeping Assad as head of state for a while -- but making sure to eviscerate the power brokers around him who tamped down his own liberalizing tendencies when he first came to power.

Obtaining such a result would require the rebels to be willing to make peace with Bashar al-Assad remaining in office -- something President Obama, as of last night, seems willing to accept. But a peace agreement would also require the regime to see most of its organizational strength dissolved. If one side or the other -- or both -- fail to seize the chance to end this tragic war along these lines, then the protection provided by American and allied forces -- and there will be allies in support of this approach -- would still be in place, there at least to reduce the human suffering. A worthy goal in its own right.

Overall, the third way I have advanced would avoid the many contradictions that bedevil the Obama plan. Some may say that seeing this alternative work all the way through to a negotiated peace along the lines I have suggested is quite a longshot. Yes, probably so. But it is a plan with much better odds of succeeding than President Obama's threatened shot across the bow.

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National Security

The Syrian Abyss

What Nietzsche would say about striking Assad.

Americans from President Obama to the average citizen are about to have a "Nietzsche moment": the kind of experience that the German philosopher predicted when he said, "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." In the case of our collective contemplation of what to do about the Syrian crisis, Nietzsche's meaning may be that, in the face of such complexity, as much may be revealed about ourselves as about the dictator we seek to rein in.

The image reflected in this existential looking glass is vexing. First, there is the odd American mixture of complacency -- see the inaction it has bred over the deaths of more than 125,000 Syrians, all too many of them noncombatants -- alongside outrage that a small percentage died in chemical-weapons attacks. It is as if we are saying that we would tacitly accept the sheer horror of this war but for the way in which a tiny sliver of the killing has been done. More artillery and aerial bombardments of rebel villages and urban clusters? No worries. Just keep the gas canisters closed. What this says about the American moral compass is troubling indeed.

At a strategic level, the abyss is just as revealing of our habits of mind and preferences. It took just a few days for Pentagon planners to design a range of campaign options and move necessary assets into position to strike. But it has taken more than two years for the White House to come up with a strategy toward this conflict -- and it isn't pretty. At best, President Obama is hinting at coercive diplomacy of the simplest and most limited sort, aimed at convincing Bashar al-Assad to stop using chemical weapons. The war may continue to rage. Regime change is not the immediate goal. So even if our missiles fly, they will achieve very little. What does this largely war-as-theater solution say about exactly who and what Americans have become?

The current debate in Congress will go a long way toward answering this question about American character and purpose in the 21st century world. No doubt the ghost of Iraq will make a Banquo-like appearance and cause much alarm, reminding us of the costs and risks of going to war on false pretenses. But President Obama is no Macbeth. He will dispel this specter with clear evidence supporting his charges against the Assad regime. No, do not count on the memory of Iraq to keep us from involvement in Syria. Instead, we in the public should insist that this matter be debated on its own merits.

And just what are the merits? The best case in favor of the use of force is that punitive strikes may somehow inhibit the future use of chemical weapons, possibly even making it less likely that they will be sent downstream to Hezbollah or some other organization. Beyond this concern, though, there is little conceivable threat to our vital national security interests here. Thus, opponents of using force might well try to convince President Obama that the proper policy now is for all nations -- including Russia and China -- to condemn the chemical attack that occurred and to join unanimously in agreeing to take serious action should this ever happen again. Punitive military action now, it may be argued, is unnecessary and likely to prove counterproductive to broader efforts to bring peace to Syria.

For all the drama that will attend considerations of national reputation and presidential prestige in this debate, the most vital aspect of the discourse to watch for is the Nietzschean heart of the matter: What will staring into the Syrian abyss reveal to us about ourselves? Will we as a nation feel impelled to support a president who has basically painted himself into a corner with all his war talk? Or will a rising tide of libertarian thought leaders -- fundamentally noninterventionist in their approach to the world -- carry the day and keep us from another problematic conflict? Stay tuned. Congress has never turned down a presidential request to authorize the use of force. But records only hold until they are broken. You can expect Senator Rand Paul, the most articulate voice in government today advocating for a less activist, less interventionist foreign policy, to have his innings.

In the end, it may be left to Samantha Power, our ambassador to the United Nations, to provide another angle of view into ourselves. For years she has been a strong advocate of the "responsibility to protect" the innocent from systematic killing. In the case of Syria, she has been sidelined, taking the earlier White House line on nonintervention. But now she is chiming in about the culpability of the Assad regime in the matter of chemical weapons use. It will be interesting to see whether she is held back yet again, given that her instincts would no doubt drive her to call for more forceful action than a limited missile bombardment of regime targets. It is ironic that President Obama's most effective spokesperson in the matter of protecting innocents from war crimes is the one he is least likely to rely upon. Power's favored solution surely consists of recommending actions far greater than those the White House prefers.

And so our cool, intellectual president is left to contemplate the abyss. It contemplates him as well, as Nietzsche would say. Us, too. It asks us if we see our great power as limited to safeguarding ourselves, or if it can be used to protect the weak, not just briefly chastise the wicked. Our answer will prove revelatory -- to the world and to ourselves. Thus can gazing into the abyss be good for the soul.

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images/Wikimedia