By Ivan Eland
Many politicians in Washington—not yet realizing that the still-broken American economy can no longer sustain an informal, globe-girdling U.S. empire—have sought to use Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on a small scale to escalate U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. And it’s not only the economy that won’t support a more muscular effort in Syria; after the marathon quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is also tired of costly (in blood and treasure) involvement in faraway wars that provide a dubious threat to America’s vital interests.
Yet the politicians, on autopilot from prior to the 2007-2008 economic crash, have suggested a Chinese menu of options to do something—anything—more to get bogged down in a country that may be strategic for nearby Israel but is not for the United States. Although sensing that the vast majority of Americans are tired of perpetual U.S. brushfire wars and thus rhetorically rejecting “boots on the ground” in Syria, they have suggested, among other things, providing heavy weapons to “democratic” opposition groups and protecting rebels or refugees with “no fly” zones. These two options, however, seem to have nothing to do with reining in Assad’s chemical weapons. Thus, the politicians seem to be flailing for any excuse merely to deepen U.S. involvement to demonstrate American leadership–without solving the problem that is the alleged intervention trigger.
Politicians are not historians and that is obvious because they don’t remember when the United States flooded the Afghan civil war in the 1980s with heavy weapons and training. The weapons ended up in the hands of the most radical Islamist groups fighting Soviet forces and their client Afghan government troops. Those groups later morphed into al Qaeda and became one of the few threats to American soil in the history of the republic. When throwing weapons into a chaotic civil war, they often end up in the hands of the most ruthless groups—in this case, it will likely be Syrian Islamist radicals.
Setting up a no fly zone will not require boots on the ground, but it will first require U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots to brave sophisticated Russian-supplied air defenses and destroy them. This mission would probably require heavy and sustained air strikes. And what if providing more aid to rebels or creating a no fly zone doesn’t result in a rebel victory? Because U.S. political investment in a favorable Syrian outcome (however that becomes defined) will have deepened, pressure will then mount to put boots on the ground.
But what about those chemical weapons? Chemical weapons are often grouped with biological and nuclear armaments as “weapons of mass destruction.” That is probably an exaggeration. Unlike biological and nuclear weapons, chemical agents have a smaller area of contamination. Also, chemical weapons are subject to environmental degradation. Thus, on average, conventional weapons have killed many more people than have chemical agents.
More important, U.S. air strikes on chemical weapons storage facilities might inadvertently release the toxic gases that they are supposedly trying to neutralize. Or if air strikes are threatened or actually occur, Syrian troops securing the sites might scram and allow the weapons to fall into the hands of terror groups. The only way to be sure these stockpiles of chemical agents remain secure is to send in U.S. commandos to do so. But this option would not only seem to violate the “no boots on the ground” promise of the hawks but also require attacks on many dispersed chemical weapons sites. Inserting commandos into a civil war to attack multiple discreet sites simultaneously is a very dangerous mission that could result in many U.S. casualties.
No good military option exists to guarantee that Syria’s chemical weapons will remain secure. The best option, however, would be to help Assad put down the rebellion!—as the United States did with the revolt against another despot in the Arabic country of Bahrain. Of course, at this late date, it is politically out of the question for the United States to switch sides in the Syrian civil war. And besides, America should end its support of autocratic governments everywhere.
So when no good military options exist, none should be taken. Barack Obama has ham-handedly painted himself into a corner by taking the macho step of establishing a “red line” for U.S. action in response to Syrian use of chemical weapons. Instead, he should have studied the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who avoided pressure to send troops to hot spots in the developing world during the Cold War by denying that crises—usually manufactured by ambitious politicians—even existed.