Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last April, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned of the potential consequences of U.S. military involvement in the Syrian conflict. It could hinder humanitarian relief operations, he said, embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment, and strain relationships around the world. “And finally,” he concluded, “a military intervention could have the unintended consequence of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict or proxy war.”
Speaking after Hagel, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in weighing options the United States had a responsibility to align her actions to the intended outcome and to articulate risk. “So before we take action, we have to be prepared for what comes next,” he said.
The use of force, especially in circumstances where ethnic and religious factors dominate, is unlikely to produce predictable outcomes . . . Unintended consequences are the rule with military interventions of this sort.
Hagel’s and Dempsey’s statements were prudent and appeared to reflect much-needed caution in the aftermath of the Iraqi disaster. Weighing costs and benefits of intervention in a faraway land where no vital U.S. interest is at stake—especially in a volatile majority-Muslim country with a complex ethno-religious chessboard—was a realist approach that bore the promise of keeping America away from yet another Middle Eastern quagmire.
On June 14, however, the Obama administration announced that it would authorize the provision of lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. The decision was justified by the alleged evidence that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government. According to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, the evidence that the nerve gas sarin had been used included “open-source reporting, intelligence reporting, and . . . the accounts of individuals,” as well as “physiological samples.” Back in March, President Obama had announced that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be “a game-changer” with grave consequences. Thus, the red line had been crossed.
The June decision is problematic on several counts. It commits the United States to a rebel victory, however defined, that is as unlikely as it would be counterproductive to the American interest. It effectively places the future of U.S. policy in Syria into the hands of the rebels—a motley group completely dominated by the Jihadist International—who will no longer be allowed to be defeated, lest Washington’s “reputation,” “commitment,” and “credibility” be jeopardized. It opens the prospect of all the complications against which Hagel and Dempsey had warned so eloquently last spring.
The following question is technical, yet crucial: What evidence do we have that sarin has been used by Syrian government forces? When such allegations initially emerged last January, the Obama administration denied their validity. “We found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time. Nothing has changed since. The evidence provided thus far is as flimsy as that offered by Colin Powell that Saddam Hussein possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Rhodes said that Assad’s forces, or those loyal to him, had used sarin “in small amounts on several occasions,” resulting in the deaths of up to 150 people. That claim does not stand up to scrutiny.
Having gained the upper hand in the military conflict in recent months, Assad did not need sarin. It is unlikely that he would have deployed it, not because he would be horrified at the thought of its effects—he is a Middle Eastern dictator, after all—but because its use would not make sense. Being a rational player, he would have been loath to unleash his chemical-weapons arsenal short of a dire military emergency, knowing that its use would elicit a forceful American response. In view of his string of recent battlefield successes, gas would have been strategically unnecessary and tactically irrelevant. This is not to say that Assad’s army is not ready to resort to such methods in extremis, but the Alawite officer corps are no idiots. In a conflict that has killed tens of thousands by small arms and artillery fire, a canister or two of sarin, causing a hundred-odd deaths, would not have been a rational option in view of the likely reaction in Washington. The only party that would benefit from the use of nerve gas is the rebels.
Interestingly, the administration has decided to remain mute on the well-founded claims that the Syrian rebels have used sarin, either as a means of fighting their opponents or as a ploy to get the government forces accused of doing so. Nobody knows if the “samples” provided to the United Nations are genuine, nor how and where and when they were collected. Former U.N. war-crimes tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte—by no means a countercultural conspiracy theorist—said last May that witness accounts pointed to the rebels, not the Syrian government forces, as the side using sarin. The nerve-gas scenario in Syria brings back memories of false-flag operations in Kosovo (Racak) and Libya (the “Benghazi massacre”), both of which resulted in foreign-policy disasters for the United States.
Obama’s “red line,” self-imposed and arbitrary, is almost a side issue compared with the wider implications of U.S. involvement in the Syrian war. As if the Afghan blowback of the 1980’s had never happened, the President is entangling the United States in a multifaceted Middle Eastern conflict without good or bad parties, a civil war irrelevant to the welfare or security of the United States, regardless of its outcome. That outcome is a minus-sum-game for the United States. As Milton Bearden, a CIA veteran who oversaw the covert program to arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets, told Foreign Policy last June, the Obama administration should realize that, if you arm the rebels, you are no longer in control.
The U.S.-supplied weapons cannot be channeled to the nonexistent Syrian “moderates.” They will end up in jihadist hands—groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is active in Syria as the Jabhat al-Nusra. This is the fighting force the Obama administration placed on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups late last year. It is now the likely recipient of U.S. largesse as the best-organized rebel group in Syria. The Obama administration’s claims that U.S. arms will go to the “moderates” is bogus because they do not exist as a fighting force. As two Reuters reporters on the ground noted after a journey through the rebel-held territory last June, “radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country.” The moderates are “no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organizations designated ‘terrorist’ by the United States.” Those fighters are often the same Iraqi and foreign mujahideen who had killed and maimed scores of American soldiers in Iraq in the previous decade. They must be giving each other high fives as the U.S.-supplied antitank rockets are coming their way from Turkey.
As Secretary of State John Kerry started his Middle Eastern tour on June 23, the contours of U.S. policy on Syria remained strangely vague. He met representatives of 11 nations in the so-called Friends of Syria group in Doha, Qatar, to discuss how to coordinate military and other aid to rebels and “change the balance” on the ground in Syria, but he provided no blueprint for action. That is just as well. The “balance” in Syria cannot be changed without an outright U.S.-led military intervention that would entail the imposition of a no-fly zone at first, and U.S. ground troops eventually. The Obama administration seemingly has no stomach for such escalation, but after its decision to arm the rebels the potential for “unintended consequences” is greater than ever.
In Saudi Arabia Kerry talked about how the United States can address “concerns over extremists inside Syria,” which was tantamount to asking Count Dracula to help manage the blood bank. The desert kingdom hopes for an endgame in Syria that would entail the imposition of a hard-core Islamic dictatorship modeled on itself. The last time American and Saudi interests coincided in supporting mujahideen was in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. The Saudis provided the holy warriors, the Reagan administration provided the weapons, and the result was the birth of Islamic terrorism as a global phenomenon.
There is no coherent U.S. strategy on Syria. Existing strategy is based either on wishful thinking or on wrongheaded mendacity. Until last May, political leaders in Washington had claimed with monotonous regularity that the government of Syria was on the verge of collapse. “Assad’s rule is coming to an end. It is inevitable,” Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told a Senate committee in November 2012. “Assad’s going to be gone; it’s just a question of time,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared exactly a year later. And Obama averred that he was confident the Assad regime in Syria would fall. “It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” he said in Amman, Jordan, on March 22.
Similar predictions from mainstream pundits are too numerous to cite. But it is not going to happen, U.S. arms or no arms. A large number of Syrians—Alawites, Christians, Kurds, secular Sunnis, etc.—loath the rebels, and they provide Bashar with the critical mass of recruits to fight and to survive. Those people know all too well what their destiny would be under the “free and democratic” regime to which Washington is now absurdly committed.
Foreign intervention is bad in principle if no vital American security and economic interests are involved. In Syria no American interest is at stake, and no American involvement is justified. Foreign intervention is bad in particular if its likely outcome is worse than the status quo. It is clear that the only likely alternative to Bashar is a nosedive into terrorist jihadist mayhem in Syria. That is infinitely worse from the vantage point of U.S. interests, geopolitically as well as morally, than what we have now in Damascus.
It is not too late to step back from the brink.