Should the Use of Chemical Weapons Prompt a US Attack in Syria?

DaDan BarkleyObama_Kerry_Syria Obama and Kerry and the War in Syria, by Dag Barkley, April 9, 2013

If it is Determined that the Assad Regime Used Chemical Weapons Against Civilians, Should the United States and its Allies Attack Syria?

Posted by Matthew Barber on Monday, August 26th, 2013

In answer to this question, Joshua Landis and Syria Comment provide the following statement:

The US must respond to the use of chemical weapons in a forceful manner, but should not launch a broader intervention in Syria.

Preserving the widely respected international norm banning the use of chemical weapons is a clear interest of the US and international community.

The US, however, should avoid getting sucked into the Syrian Civil War. Thus, it should punish Assad with enough force to deter future use of chemical weapons, but without using so much force that it gets drawn into an open-ended conflict.

The reasons why the US should avoid a wider intervention is that it has no partner within Syria or the international community to help shoulder the burden of nation-building.  All the countries of the region want Washington to solve their Syria problem, but none want to send in troops.

The Syrian opposition is dysfunctional and composed of over 1,000 militias, the strongest of which are radically pro-Islamist and virulently anti-American. Most are not prepared to work with the US or provide responsible government for the country.

The barbarism of the Assad regime is horrifying, but the US cannot solve the bitter ethnic, sectarian, and factional rivalries in Syria. It should, however, attempt to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons, and can employ force in this endeavor.

Syria Comment’s Position on the Conflict More Generally

Consistently arguing against intervention since the beginning of the conflict has elicited a degree of animosity and anger from those waiting expectantly for the Syrian regime to fall. This feeling is understandable as so much of the country has been destroyed.

We at Syrian Comment are not insulated from the suffering in Syria, but encounter it daily as our friends, family, and associates both in and outside the country relate their stories of anguish and loss. With close to one-third of Syrians displaced (two million having fled the country and close to five million internal refugees) the suffering is staggering. We regularly hear pleas from those we know for personal help and support, often beyond our means.

The argument against intervention, therefore, is a position we maintain while unceasingly observing and witnessing the heartbreaking bloodshed. Despite the tremendous outcry of pain and loss, we still believe that intervention in Syria is not a viable option for America for several important reasons.

Some of those reasons include:

1) Bombing is not a solution: Mere bombing will not provide a solution; in order to disarm militias and protect Syrians, the U.S. would have to put peace-keeping forces on the ground to end revenge killings and provide security, yet Washington has ruled out sending occupation troops into Syria.

2) The financial burden is too high: The U.S. lacks the resources or will to spend enough money to do the necessary nation-building in Syria. This is why having an international coalition willing to send troops into Syria is so important. Militias have to be disarmed and a new state has to be built. Suppressing competing militias and building new central governments in both Iraq and Afghanistan has cost in excess of one trillion dollars apiece.

3) The lack of desire on the part of Americans for another long-term Middle East entanglement without a foreseeable end.

4) The opposition is incapable of providing government services: Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. The government continues to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians with salaries & retirement benefits. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can get worse.

Most militias are drawn from the poorer, rural districts of Syria. Most wealth is concentrated in the city centers that remain integral (such as Damascus, Lattakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Hama, etc.), which have survived largely unscathed in this conflict, and have not opted to continue the struggle. If the militias take these cities, there will be widespread looting and lawlessness which will threaten many more civilians who have managed to escape the worst until now.

Many in these urban centers have managed to continue leading fairly stable lives up to the present; despite the tremendous level of destruction seen so far, many areas are still a long way from the bottom. It would be preferable to avoid a Somalia-like scenario in the remaining cities and provinces.

It’s not at all clear that U.S. intervention can improve the economic or security situation for Syrians.

5) Entering the conflict would mean America battling on multiple fronts, not only against the regime: The U.S. has declared itself at war with al-Qaida. If we were to intervene, we would have to enter a new front against the most powerful and effective Syrian opposition militias, in addition to the war against Assad. Our forces would be targeted by extremists and more radically-Islamist militias. We would be fighting a multi-front war.

6) The potential for ethnic cleansing and revenge killings is high: The different ethno-sectarian communities and socio-economic classes are renegotiating the dynamics of their relationship inside Syria. For the last 50 years, Alawites have monopolized the ramparts of power in Syria. They have allied themselves with other minorities and important segments of the Sunni majority, and the regime has preserved its power through a careful sectarian strategy. The rebellion, led primarily by Sunni Arabs of the countryside, aims to supplant the Alawite hold on power. The US cannot adjudicate the new balance of power that will emerge in Syria. It is not prudent to dramatically tip the balance of power in such a supercharged environment of sectarian hatred and class warfare.

Military Action at Present Should Target Chemical Weapons Only

While the U.S. and the American people are no allies of the Syrian regime (and for good reason), pushing hard for a rebel win today is not in US interests and is unlikely to benefit Syria. Punitive measures taken against the regime following the use of chemical weapons should be conducted with the purpose of deterring the future use of chemical weapons—not to change the balance of power in favor of the rebels.

This is said with full recognition of the terrible atrocities and killing taking place within Syria, including the many crimes of the regime. The Assad regime is not an entity to be protected or defended, but destroying it today may throw the country into greater chaos and suffering and pull the U.S. into a morass that lacks any visible solution.

Long Term Goal of a Power-Sharing Agreement

The US should strive to persuade all parties to reach a power-sharing agreement to end the war. This can only happen with the cooperation of Russia and other players, such as Iran. It is not likely to happen soon, but such a Geneva-style agreement would provide an important framework for a peace process down the road. If Syria is to be kept together as a unified state, a power-sharing agreement must be hammered out, with or without Assad.

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