Intervene In Syria? Just Say No.

[Re-posted from earlier today]

The above video shows an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on Saturday night, reportedly targeting regime munitions bound for Hezbollah. It comes on the heels of another attack late last week, on missiles stored at Damascus airport. Assad’s regime now declares it will retaliate, and the IDF says this won’t be the end of the strikes:

Officials [in Israel] are concerned that as the Syrian state devolves into chaos, sophisticated weapons not previously available to Hizballah will make their way across the border to Lebanon, altering the military equation between Israel and the well-armed Shi‘ite militia sponsored by Iran and aided by the Syrian government.

We are told this was not an act of war. Why? Er, because Israel did it and therefore it is not an act of war. It may have killed close to 100 Syrian army soldiers, among many others; it may have been the biggest single explosion in Syria’s capital city throughout the entire conflict; it may have required entering another country’s airspace and bombing its capital city; but this is not a war. Moreover, this not-war is embraced by the US. Because Israel did it:

In a series of high-level meetings between U.S. and Israeli officials over the last year, the Israelis explained in detail the conditions that would lead them to attack targets inside Syria. Israel’s “red lines,” articulated in private and public, include the shipment from Iran of advanced anti-aircraft weapons, advanced missiles, and chemical or unconventional weapons to the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, according to public reports and U.S. officials. … President Obama signaled Sunday that the U.S. had no objections to the strikes.

Which begs the obvious question:


Imagine a foreign military bombing Washington. Would we not regard that as an act of war? At what point are we going to admit that, in our view, all the rules of international law apply to every party but the US and its allies? Blake Hounshell considers the impact of the air strikes on all parties:

[W]ow, this is awkward for the Syrian opposition. The regime will seek to exploit the raids to tie the rebels to the Zionist entity, after spending two years painting them as an undifferentiated mass of “terrorist gangs.” (Syrian television is already testing out this line, according to Reuters: “The new Israeli attack is an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups which have been reeling from strikes by our noble army.”)

But the propaganda can cut both ways. The rebels can point to the Israeli attacks as yet more evidence that Assad’s army is for attacking Syrians, not defending the country. It’s not clear to me which argument will carry the day.

The strikes also promise to hypercharge the debate over Syria in the United States. Advocates of  intervention will ask: If Syrian air defenses are so tough, as U.S. officials have been saying, why was Israel able to breach them so easily? Of course, a no-fly zone is a much more difficult and risky endeavor than a one-off raid, but you can expect that important distinction to get blurred.

It was, in fact, amazing to see how Israel’s complication of an already metastasizing conflict did not prompt concerns in the US about the war expanding – but immediately gave us commentary that this proves how easy war against Syria can be – and so why are we waiting? Yes, a decade after “Mission Accomplished” we are asking why not go to war in a Middle Eastern Muslim country racked by a splintering insurgency? Here’s why:

The Israeli strikes aim at specific, identifiable direct threats to vital Israeli interests and use the smallest force and lowest risk possible to eliminate those threats. The Israelis may not be able to solve the problem of potential arms transfers to Hezbollah writ large, but standoff strikes against discrete targets do not tie down Israeli forces enough to make it a distracting quagmire.

A [No-Fly-Zone], on the other hand, requires massive amounts of aircraft and munitions in both standoff and air superiority roles to even deliver the basic goal of grounding the Syrian air force. A Syrian NFZ presents an even larger operation than the Libyan air campaign, and one that is likely to be even less effective, especially if it is a pure NFZ that refrains from the additional aircraft, munitions, and ground/intelligence efforts that would be necessary to support a campaign to target the Syrian army. Syria’s mix of ground forces and paramilitary groups appear far more combat effective than their Libyan regime equivalents, and, even without air cover, would not be operating at crippling loss without their air force (Syrian aircraft appear far more competent at terror bombing than tight close-air support).

What we have here is a regional, sectarian war that has been brewing since the Iraq implosion tore the region’s fragile stability apart – and further fueled by the energies unleashed by the Arab Spring. Beneath the Iran-Israel stand-off, we also have a Shia-Sunni struggle, in which Assad and Khamenei and Hezbollah and Maliki are fighting off the hardcore Sunni Jihadists and democrats trying to depose Assad. My point is that this is emphatically not our fight, it is an intensely complex one in a fractured and splintering region, that there are no good options, but that remaining on the sidelines seems to me to be the least worst one right now.

To intervene is to help some faction directly or indirectly, which means alienating another faction directly or indirectly. It swiftly becomes a maze from which no adventurer exits. Part of this maze of confusion: the fact that the UN has now said it has found evidence that it may be the rebels, not the regime, who have used Sarin gas:

The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said commission member Carla Del Ponte.

“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television. “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added, speaking in Italian.

So, sorry, Mr Keller, but Syria is very much like Iraq. A dictator leaving a vacuum in a half-liberated country? Check. A sectarian war we cannot understand let alone direct? Check. A Sunni insurgency increasingly allied with Jihadist elements? Check. Nebulous accusations and counter-accusations about WMDs, without hard proof of much at all? Check. A conflict swayed by interference across the region – from the Sunni monarchies to the Shi’a powers? Check.

You can argue that this could have somehow been prevented. I doubt it. You could also argue that the United States has an interest in an outcome that is neither Assad nor the al Nusra brigades. But no one can explain to me how to get from here to there. This is their regional war, not ours’. And our only reliable ally in the region seems perfectly capable of protecting itself and its own interests, without even informing us in advance.

Please, Mr President: just say no. You were elected to end this kind of hubristic, short-sighted, if well-intentioned military intervention. We did not elect you over McCain in 2008 merely to watch you follow that unreconstructed neocon’s advice, which is always to intervene first and figure out what to do once we have.

You know better. Trust your instincts. Do as little as possible.