I love Matty Yglesias and William Saletan over at Slate. I love anti-war Democrats. But it's very clear they don't think about foreign policy on a regular basis. Syria is a very small country. It's 20 million people are roughly half the population of the average UN country (it does get up to 2/3 if you include territories). It's land area is comparable to Washington state. It has basically no energy resources. If you talk about Syria solely in terms of things that are within Syria's borders you can only conclude that Syria is less important then Mozambique, Zimbabwe, or Argentina.
And that's pretty much what all these people are doing. They are looking at the Syria problem purely in terms of it being a SYRIA problem, and coming to the entirely logical conclusion that President should just ignore Assad like he's ignoring Mugabe. This is stupid.
Syria isn't a significant country. Unfortunately for us it borders many significant countries. The Turks are in NATO, the Israelis and Jordanians are "Major Non-NATO US Allies," and all three share a border with Syria. They all deserve to know we will spend a few Billion$ to protect them. That is what Ally means. Syria also shares a border with Iraq and Lebanon, two of the only countries where hundreds of US Troops have died within my lifetime. So from a simple geographical perspective Syria is probably the most important country in the world that is not a) a permanent member of the UN security council, or b) formally a US Ally.
Now lets consider the nature of the problem in Syria. It's clear somebody is using chemical weapons there because every few months thousands of people show up at the hospital with nerve gas damage. This is not something an exile with a fertile imagination
can fake. If the CIA could fake it they would have done so in Iraq. Chemical weapons attacks are happening in Syria. Period. End of story. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
The questions then become:
1) Who is doing it?
2) What can we do about it?
3) What impact does this have on our allies?
4) What impact does it have on our relationship with said allies?
I have seen virtually no commentary on the internet that deals with any of these questions at all. I will do my beast to answer them here.
1) Obama is claiming the Israelis intercepted communications from a Syrian Army Chemical weapons unit to a senior Syrian official (generally identified as Assad's brother
). If Obama was lying about receiving this from Israel Bibi would go ballistic (he's not an Obama fan), and John Kerry's recent attempt to revive Oslo would die. Therefore it's virtually certain that Obama has a communications intercept from Israel that the CIA thinks is credible.
The question then becomes "Are the Israelis lying"? I doubt it for two reasons. First if they actually lied they'd eventually be caught, and they'd lose credibility. Second (and more important) I don't see what they gain out of a weakened Assad, or a rebel take-over of Syria. Weak Assad aligns with Hezbollah, which means instead of useless drones they get hit with chemical weapons. To an extent this is already happening, but for this play to help them Obama would need to respond so aggressively that Assad is forced to back off from supporting Hezbollah, but not so aggressively that Assad loses, because nobody has any clue what would happen if the rebels took over. This is just not the kind of scheme an actual intelligence agency would try.
Which leads to the final question: did the rebels plant the story? This is possible, but would require a lot of luck to work. There are so many moving parts to a scheme like this that it would be very easy to, for example, include somebody on the radio who doesn't sound like the regime character he's playing, or include a regime character who happens to be in France that day.
OTOH in the middle of a battle it's very easy to lose your cool, and fire off your weapons even if you know the boss several levels up would not want that to happen. It's happened more then once to our troops. It's not impossible to imagine a scenario where a known-hothead like Maher Assad pulls the trigger on a chemical weapons attack his brother would never approve. It's even easier to imagine a lower-level guy whose boss is Maher Assad doing it. The attitude "it's better to ask forgiveness then permission" exists everywhere.
2) In practical terms very little. This doesn't rise to the boots on the ground level, and even if it did Iraq proved don't have the troop-levels to make it work. We'd need 400k boots to adequately occupy the country, which means 1.2 million Army+Marines ground-pounders on Active Duty and we just don't have them. Turkey, Jordan, and Israel do have them but we can't use Israeli troops to overthrow Arab governments and the other two are not in the mood for foreign adventures.
Since there's no coherent rebel command structure to ally with we can't bomb Assad into oblivion and then treat with the new government. We have no clue who that'd be, much less how long they'd last as government.
So what we can do is bomb Assad until he makes major changes. The major changes we need are dependent on what those three allies (Turkey, Israel, and Jordan) need to feel like they aren't about to be gassed.
3) Let's start with Israel. Assad is aligned with Hezbollah, whose latest antic is blowing up bus-loads of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria (the guy who tried to do it in Cyprus got caught). Assad owes Hezbollah a huge favor, since they fought for him at Qusayr
, and now he's proven that he can't stop his subordinates from using chemical weapons. Those subordinates, who in some cases will owe a Hezbollah fighter their lives, are the only people between Hezbollah and nerve gas. I don't agree with the Israelis on many issues in the Middle East, but they have every right to be terrified today. Hell, if I was Israeli the phrase "quivering in terror" would be an understatement.
The Turks don't have anything quite as dramatic as Hezbollah fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with chemically armed Syrian troops to fear, but they still haven't finalized peace with the PKK
, and they don't always see eye-to-eye with Assad. What's to stop him from arming the PKK, or a provisional PKK on the lines of the IRA in Northern Ireland, with nerve gas if they don't give Assad everything he wants?
Jordan doesn't have any active rebel groups. But that's because King Hussein threw out the PLO in Black September
. That was a full-fledged Civil War 40 years back. The issues that caused that war are mostly solved, but if Assad started handing Jordanian dissidents Nerve Gas Jordan would not be a nice place to live.
4) Let's start with Israel: if the US does not stop Assad from ever using these weapons again, ideally while also permanently divorcing him from Hezbollah, they will be 100% justified in abandoning the American alliance. John Kerry's attempt to revive the Oslo process will end in failure. The Israelis themselves will directly intervene in Syria to accomplish their objectives, and America will get blamed if anything goes wrong. In other words this is kind of a fucking nightmare for us. Since having a Hezbollah-aligned, nerve gas using neighbor is a fucking nightmare for the Israelis I won't blame them if we force them to do it.
On to Turkey. The Turks probably wouldn't actually invade Syria to set up their own puppet regime. Nobody likes having crazies with nerve gas set up next door, but if they invaded they'd be on the hook for those 1.2 milliion ground-pounders I mentioned in in question 2, they currently only have 300-350k, and their Prime Minister doesn't want to give his Generals more power. The Turks won't abandon our alliance if we can't solve this for them, but they'd really like it solved.
Jordan is even more screwed then Turkey. 1.2 million ground-pounders would be 1/3 of the male population of Jordan. So they probably won't try to conquer Syria, abandon their alliance, and curse our names forever.
In other words Obama's current plan is pretty much the only thing he can do. He has to force Syria to give up it's chemical weapons, and they won't do that unless he makes keeping them incredibly expensive. The only way he can do that is bombing with the USAF and USN. His opening ask will probably be pretty high: No Hezbollah on Syrian territory, permanent UN weapons inspectors with the power to photograph Assad naked and post it to twitter, the immediate execution of Assad's brother for war crimes, etc.
He'll probably settle for a lot less. He'll give up the Hezbollah demand, reduce the execution to exile, and accept somewhat limited weapons inspection powers or something along those lines.
What he cannot do is what the anti-war types want, and restrict his actions to things the UN Security Council will endorse because the UN Security Council has vetoes from the Russians and Chinese.