Tag: Syria

WSJ Calls for No-Fly Zone in Syria, Acknowledges No-Fly Zone Isn’t Enough

It seems the Wall Street Journal editorial board has yet to identify a conflict in which the United States should not intervene. Today, they again call for U.S. military intervention in Syria and criticize President Obama for his inaction. Their main recommendation? Easy: set up a no-fly zone: 

The U.S. could boost its diplomatic leverage with the rebels and their regional allies by enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Syria. That would help prevent the regime from using its attack jets and helicopter gunships against civilian targets while allowing insurgents to consolidate and extend their territorial gains. It also means we could use limited force in a way that strengthens the hand of rebels we support at the expense of those we don’t. 

The key point here is that the Journal leaves open the possibility of using “limited force” to help the rebels. Indeed, this is what no-fly zones often become: precursors to additional involvement at a later date (think Iraq and Libya). I argued as much last week: 

If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or [no-fly zones] can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. 

In Libya, there wasn’t such an explicit call for a no-fly zone as a means to toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone did not include “regime change” as a goal, but that’s what it became. In Syria, a no-fly zone would be used explicitly for the purpose of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if regime change is the goal, a no-fly zone will not do much to lead us there. They are security-theater, as Ben Friedman has pointed out: “No-fly zones commit us to winning wars but demonstrate our limited will to win them. That is why they are bad public policy.” 

More Calls for Intervention in Syria

Pressure is building on President Obama to involve the United States more deeply in the brutal civil war in Syria that may have claimed as many as 70,000 lives, and created more than a million refugees. Late last week, the editorial board of the Washington Post called for “aggressive intervention by the United States and its allies to protect the opposition and civilians.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) apparently believes that the Post didn’t go far enough because the editorial explicitly ruled out sending U.S. ground troops. He wants the U.S. military to secure suspected chemical weapons caches there. But where Graham is leading few will follow, aside from his frequent co-conspirator, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The American people are not anxious to send U.S. troops into the middle of yet another civil war in the region.

Some do want the U.S. government to do more, however, and not just the people who sold us the war in Iraq. For example, during a stop in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry made vague references to increasing the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition. Back here in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) became the latest to call for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Arms supplied to resistance fighters can be directed against other targets when the regime collapses (or may simply prolong the war if it doesn’t), which is why no-fly zones are seen as the less risky option. They could satisfy the understandable human instinct to be seen as doing something, anything, in the face of enormous human suffering. As such, if President Obama were to institute a no-fly zone, it might forestall an even more costly and risky operation, one that did involve U.S. troops on the ground. 

But no-fly zones often become precursors to additional involvement at a later date. If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or they can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. We are choosing sides, and arguably already have, without a clear sense that the regime that comes after will be an improvement over what came before. We are placing ourselves into the middle of a much wider sectarian dispute taking place throughout the region. 

Claims that the United States has a unique opportunity to shape the political process in Syria are equally misguided. Though we wish otherwise, a U.S. government stamp of approval is likely to undermine the legitimacy of genuine democrats in Syria, to the extent that there are any. And we know that the opposite is true: individuals or groups singled out for criticism, for example the al-Nasra Front, have seen their stature rise. The reason is simple: the American brand has never been lower in the region, and is held in particularly low regard in Syria. 

When I wrote about Syria late last year (here and here), I was reasonably confident that President Obama would not intervene, in spite of the fact that his decision to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddafi established a precedent for a similar regime-change operation in Syria. The key distinctions between the two cases include UN Security Council support for intervention in Libya, but not in Syria, a relatively well-defined mission in Libya, but not in Syria, and a reasonable expectation that the costs of military operations could be kept limited, and would deliver clear results, which was true in Libya, but is not true in Syria. Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey threw cold water on the notion that the military could produce an acceptable outcome in Syria. 

The general’s candor is both welcome and refreshing. Although the suffering in Syria is gut-wrenching, the U.S. military lacks the ability to resolve the underlying social and political disputes that are driving the civil war. Indeed, as Ben Friedman pointed out last year, outside intervention might actually prolong such conflicts, or initiate new ones, resulting in even greater loss of life. 

The American people have so far proved unwilling to intervene in Syria, and are particularly resistant to the idea of U.S. troops marching on Damascus. They were similarly disinclined to become involved in Libya, however, and the president ignored the public in that previous case. He should not do so with respect to Syria. And Congress shouldn’t allow it if he tries.

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq. 

When Obama and Romney Talk Foreign Policy, Who Wins?

The presidential campaign will focus on foreign policy for a few hours on Tuesday when President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City while his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will address the Clinton Global Initiative just a few miles away. Each will try to wring some political advantage from speeches that are generally directed at foreign audiences.

Neither candidate is likely to come out a winner, although for different reasons. It will be difficult for President Obama to convince the electorate and the world that U.S. policies, particularly in the volatile Greater Middle East, are succeeding. But Mitt Romney’s challenge is greater. He must convince voters that his policies would result in tangible gains. It isn’t clear that they would, however, nor that his policies are sufficiently different from the president’s to convince voters to change horses in mid-stream.

The president is likely to call for staying the course. Echoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks from last week, he will try to convince the people of the Middle East that the United States remains their friend and partner, and he will tell skeptical Americans that the feeling is mutual. He may point to the large quantities of aid that U.S. taxpayers have sent to the region to win points with foreign audiences, but this risks alienating the voters here at home.

Obama may also emphasize that the United States intends to maintain a large military presence in the region so as to, as Secretary Clinton said last week, “help bring security to these nations so that the promise of the revolutions that they experienced can be realized.” But foreign listeners aren’t convinced that the United States has helped bring security to anyone, and they certainly don’t want U.S. help now.

Obama’s message to Americans, delivered between the lines of his UN speech, is that the United States cannot afford to disengage from the region. Be patient, Obama will say. Many decades of trying to manage the political affairs of other countries, often with the heavy hand of the U.S. military, has carried high costs and delivered few clear benefits, but it could have been worse.

Not so, says Romney and the Republicans. President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has clearly failed, they claim. The Cairo speech in 2009, followed by the belated support for anti-Mubarak protesters in Egypt in 2011, and finally the decision to use U.S. military power to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, don’t appear to have purchased us much good will. On the contrary, anti-American sentiment is running high, higher even than when Obama took office, according to some polls. The violence against U.S. officials and property merely punctuates the grim statistics, and invites ominous parallels to 1979.

But while Obama’s task will be difficult, Mitt Romney has an even higher hill to climb. He must differentiate his policies from the president’s and persuade U.S. voters, especially, but also the skeptics abroad, that his policies would be much better. His surrogates have implied that the events of the past fortnight certainly would not have occurred had Romney been in the Oval Office, but they haven’t explained how or why that is true.

Meanwhile, the few concrete policies that Romney champions are deeply unpopular in the region, and not much more popular with U.S. voters. His calls to add nearly $2 trillion in military spending over the next decade suggest a willingness to increase the U.S. military presence around the world, but especially in the Greater Middle East. Most Americans want U.S. troops to be brought home. His leading foreign policy adviser has criticized the Obama administration for refusing to intervene in the Syrian civil war. This suggests that the problem with U.S. policy has been too little meddling in the internal affairs of foreign countries, whereas most Americans believe that there has been too much. And Romney did not endorse Sen. Rand Paul’s effort to tie U.S. aid to conditions, so it is hard to see how he can score points against President Obama by promising to stick with the status quo.

However, all of these other issues pale in comparison to the most visible U.S. policy in the region of the past decade: the Iraq war. That disastrous conflict will hang heavily over Romney’s speech, as it has over his entire campaign, and over the GOP for several election cycles. Although most Americans now believe that the war never should have been fought, and most non-Americans never thought that it should have been, Romney refuses to repudiate it. On the contrary, he has staffed his campaign with some of the war’s leading advocates. Given his famous aversion to anything that might be construed as an apology, Romney is unlikely to evince any doubts about the war in his speech on Tuesday. But if he wants to convince voters that he will be a more capable steward of U.S. foreign policy than Obama has been, he must at least explain what lessons he takes away from an unpopular war. Otherwise, his implicit assertion that it couldn’t get any worse will fall flat with those who believe that it certainly could.

The Endgame in Syria

Eventually, Syrian president Bashar-al Assad will fall from power. When that will happen has been the subject of much speculation. Appearing on NPR’s On Point, CBS News foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward, who won a 2012 Peabody Award for her reporting on the Syrian uprising, had this to say about ”the endgame and the final chapter and the final countdown” and all the other clichés we have been hearing:

[T]he reality on the ground is that the regime still has some fight left in it. They are still militarily far superior to rebel forces. Rebel forces are still desperately lacking the heavy weaponry they would need to seriously take on the regime militarily. They are still not a cohesive fighting force with a clear command structure. There is still almost no coordination among the various rebel groups. So I think it’s a little early to talk about the final countdown. But certainly what we’ve seen transpiring in Damascus over the past few days … I think it is a turning point. We have opened a new chapter even if it’s not the final chapter in this.

Whither the Assad Regime?

The bombing of Syria’s national security headquarters, which killed key figures in the government, is evidence of expanding instability, but not of a regime on the verge of collapse. The attack and others like it have not significantly altered the Syrian uprising’s most enduring challenge: the inability of its fragmented opposition to congeal. This challenge, coupled with the rebellion’s lack of an inclusive vision for Syria’s minorities, and the troubling developments today, should give proponents of intervention pause.

America, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf Arab states have all called on Syria’s fractured opposition to unify. A commitment to inclusion today could break down tomorrow, and such divisions could set the stage for an even bloodier ethno-sectarian civil war in a post-Assad Syria. Discord persists despite rebel attacks on regime officials and security forces. In fact, conflicting reports about the most recent bombing in Damascus—whether it was carried out by the Free Syrian Army, which claimed responsibility, or a cabinet member’s personal bodyguard—points to the difficulty of discerning the exact nature of the opposition.

Islamists, for instance, seem intent on hijacking the struggle for a democratic Syria. In May, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly reported that despite U.S. hopes that minorities would unite under the Sunni-led Syrian National Congress, Syria’s Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Alawite sect, “All have resisted what they say is the group’s domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That same month, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Captain John Kirby told reporters that defense officials believe “al-Qaida has some presence inside Syria and interest in fomenting violence in Syria.” He added, “We do not believe they share the goals of the Syrian opposition or that they are even embraced by the opposition … The sense that we get is that it is primarily members of [al-Qaida in Iraq] that are migrating into Syria.”

Similarly, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned earlier this year that al Qaeda-aligned forces coming from neighboring Iraq—a country that the United States occupied for nearly a decade—had carried out explosions in Damascus:

The two bombings in Damascus in December … and then the two additional bombings in Aleppo, both of which were targeted against security and intelligence buildings … had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.  So we believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.

Rather than exercise restraint, the rise of Syria’s Islamists has encouraged Washington to intervene. Last month, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had ordered a small number of C.I.A. officers to help funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons,” across the Turkish border through intermediaries in Syria who include the Muslim Brotherhood, all paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The justification was to keep weapons out of the hands of al Qaeda-allied groups, which is not reassuring. The most infamous instance of planners in Washington assisting the arming of rebels was in the 1980s in Afghanistan—a country that years later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

The Syrian opposition’s failure to unite, combined with the ascendance of Islamists and al Qaeda-linked jihadists, complicates, among other things, the Western response to the Assad regime’s continued massacre of its people. For now, these divisions will prove more damaging to the Syrian uprising than the uprising’s attacks on the regime’s iron-fist.

NATO and Turkey: Moribund Alliances, Military Snares, and Unnecessary Wars

NATO fulfilled its Cold War role by deterring rather than sparking conflict. Yet if Turkey and Syria come to blows, the transatlantic alliance could turn into a transmission belt of war for America.

Syria’s developing civil war has spilled over into Turkey. Moreover, Ankara has begun to meddle in the conflict next door. Despite Turkey’s denials, the Erdogan government appears to be channeling arms shipments to rebels and sheltering Syrian opposition activists.

Thus, tension between the two governments was rising even before the Syrian military destroyed a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance plane. Damascus claimed the aircraft was in Syrian airspace; Ankara said the jet had strayed over Syrian territory but was over international waters when downed. The plane may have been on a surveillance mission:  the Erdogan government has been pressing for NATO military action against Syria.

After the shoot-down, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “any military approach to the Turkish border from the Syrian side will be perceived as a threat and will be dealt with accordingly.” Ankara also sought backing from NATO’s members: “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms,” explained Alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Rasmussen said that Article 5, regarding use of military force in defense, had not been discussed. And he stated “It is my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate.” Wars have a way of happening unexpectedly, however. If Turkey attacks Syrian military units in their own territory, sparking retaliation by Damascus followed by a call from Ankara to NATO for support, the United States could find itself, however reluctantly, at war.

Alliances make sense when directed against an overwhelming outside threat. The Soviet Union constituted one. Syria does not.  NATO has turned into an association which drags members into everyone else’s wars, actually reducing collective security.

The United States pulls Europe into Afghanistan, a mission widely opposed by the European people. Europe pulls America into Libya, a mission widely opposed by the American people. Turkey could pull both America and Europe into Syria, a mission generally opposed by both the American and European people.

The security argument for Washington’s defense of Europe disappeared years ago. The worsening confrontation between Turkey and Syria offers a sharp reminder that NATO is not only unnecessary but dangerous. The U.S. should drop this outmoded security commitment before it draws America into yet another war in the Middle East.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.