The U.S. invasion of Iraq sparked civil conflict which killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians. Civil wars are particularly resistant to outside solution.
Nor would the fighting likely end even if the U.S. ousted the Assad regime. Insurgent factions, including increasingly influential jihadists, then would fight for dominance. For many rebels revenge would become a top priority.
Even if nation‐building in Syria wasn’t such a daunting task, the U.S. government should not risk the lives of its citizens in conflicts where Americans have no substantial stake. This nation, its territory, people, liberty and prosperity, remains the highest duty for Washington.
Far from advancing U.S. security, getting involved in Syria would ensnare Americans in a completely unnecessary conflict. Damascus has neither the ability nor the interest to attack the U.S. Any attempt by the Assad government to strike, including with chemical weapons, would trigger massive retaliation — perhaps even with nuclear weapons, which are true weapons of mass destruction.
While the Assad regime theoretically could target a U.S. ally, it has no incentive to do so. After all, its very survival is threatened by determined insurgents. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all are well‐heeled and well‐armed. All are capable of deterring attack.
Some war advocates hope that hitting Damascus would weaken Iran. However, to the extent the latter feels more isolated, it may press for tighter ties with Shia‐dominated Iraq, which faces an increasing challenge from militant Sunnis. Tehran’s divided elites also likely would close ranks against any possible peaceful deal over its nuclear program, which would be the regime’s only sure guarantee of survival.
The Syrian conflict is destabilizing, but the Mideast never has been at rest. Most of the countries are artificial, created by British and French line‐drawing a century ago. War, revolution, discord and violence have been the norm for decades.
The focus on chemical weapons is misguided. The travesty of the Syrian civil war is that more than 100,000 people apparently have died, not that some were killed with chemical weapons. The latter are not really weapons of mass destruction. They are difficult to deploy and not so deadly. At least 99 percent of the millions of battlefield deaths in World War I were caused by other means.
Even if the administration is genuinely committed to only minor military action, Washington would find it hard to be only half in. Inconsequential missile attacks still would represent increased U.S. investment in the Syrian civil war. Pressure on Washington to do more would steadily grow, with a warlike Greek chorus intoning “U.S. credibility” at every turn.
However, concern over credibility does not warrant making a bad decision to enter an unnecessary war. American presidents routinely put U.S. credibility on the line without backing up their threats — how many times have we heard that North Korea cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons?
The real lesson of President Obama’s throwaway comment on Syrian chemical weapons is that red lines should not be drawn unless they reflect overriding, even vital interests and are worth war to enforce. Going to war for minimal, even frivolous stakes to enhance credibility is a fool’s bargain.