, Salem, MA

September 5, 2013

Watson: Syrian war may defy U.S. action

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — This week and next, as our congressmen and the administration consider the chemical attacks on Syrian civilians and discuss what an appropriate response might be, it is my hope that they will work very hard to keep front-and-center the complexity and ultimate unknowability of so much of the dynamics surrounding the civil war and any possible course of action that we could take.

For the possibilities — and stakes — of miscalculation are high, and no matter how informed and judicious our debate will be, it must be emphasized that our ultimate actions will not be better than an educated guess.

It is very important to establish that point, because it may have the healthy effect of putting a larger burden on the argument to respond to the chemical attacks with some sort of military reaction. The use of force should in most cases be reserved for that point when we think that all other options have been exhausted, or for that point when we have gauged that its application will be effective.

So far, and probably indefinitely, we have no way of knowing if a military strike (bombing President Assad’s assets) would prove effective or useful.

Of course, first, we’d have to define “effective.” What would be the goal of firing cruise missiles into Syria? Would it be to dissuade Assad from ever launching poison gas again? Would it be to simply destroy some of his military hardware and buildings?

Would it be to punish him for violating an international “norm” (not a “law,” because Syria never signed the relevant U.N. treaty)? Or would it be to bulwark American “credibility,” to show that we mean what we say when we draw “red lines?” Do we think that Assad has challenged our resolve?

Would cruise missile strikes be intended to aid the insurgents? Would they significantly damage Assad’s fighting capability? What would be their effect on Syrian citizens?

It is critical to understand and articulate what outcome we expect from whatever action we take. Only then could we discuss the probabilities (not certainties) of those desired results.

But that is only half the reflection required. The other major factor to be considered carefully is the reaction to our reaction. If we launch no military initiative, how would that be interpreted? And even more critical, what would be the reaction to an American military strike?

This may be the most serious aspect of all. An American air strike could easily serve as a reason for Assad or his allies to enlarge the war, perhaps by shelling Turkey, Israel or Cyprus, or immediately unleashing more gas on Syrians. Would we (or Israel) then bomb Syria again? And they respond again? Who would agree to stop first?

As our congressmen and the administration discuss the possibility of bombing Syria, let us hope that they hypothesize fully about the worst consequences — and how those play out — that may result from such action. Although it feels almost unfair to have to consider the reaction to our strike — after all, didn’t Assad start this? — that’s what reality demands.

And handicapping us and Assad in this exercise of assessing action, intention, motive and resolve is the inability to read each other’s mind, or be sure that we understand how each other thinks. How can we know what will impress or deter Assad? His logic may not be our logic.

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I think it is possible that not bombing Syria yet might be the best response for now. We can reserve the right to change our minds.

There may be some advantage in waiting to see how Assad behaves. Although watching 1,500 people be gassed with sarin was horrible, we have not intervened to protest the deaths of the other 120,000 or so — many of them innocent — killed in the civil war already. And the Taliban will quite likely massacre well more than 1,500 when we finally exit Afghanistan.

Something in our thinking is unclear. It can’t just be the method of execution that matters or that trumps other factors. I think that we need to think harder about when and why we intervene.

In 2002, Samantha Power, our new U.N. ambassador and longtime Obama adviser, wrote a book, “A Problem From Hell.” In it, she described our absent or late interventions in Nigeria, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. She acknowledged all of the realpolitik that often argues against humanitarian intervention, but she still concluded that the world should often do more.

And that, I think, is a salient point. It is the world — not just the U.S. — that can help to formulate a response to Syrian gas use. We have limited resources and not infinite capacity to influence world events. Syria’s situation is not that of any of the countries in Power’s book, and we have time and the circumstances to err on the side of caution as we consider our ability to affect either Assad or the outcome of the Syrian civil war.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at