Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 8: Syria

There are strong indications that President Obama will take military action against Syria,  even though several key questions have not been answered.

First, what good will an American attack do? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently told Congress, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. … It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Second, what harm will an American attack do? There is evidence that keeping this civil war going will increase the fighting strength of al Qaeda. In addition to threatening our own nation, that also increases the risk of chaos in the Russian Federation, particularly its Chechen Republic. Unrest in a nation with thousands of nuclear weapons – especially when pointed at us – is a threat to our national security. And, as the Boston Marathon bombing shows, Chechen jihadists are not solely a threat to Russia, but to us as well.

Third, how certain are we about who is responsible for the recent chemical weapons attacks? Today, George Kenney has an excellent article on the Huffington Post, which notes:

… it remains far from clear who did it. None of the many insurgent groups are saints; to be honest, with the fighting going against the insurgency in recent months there would be far greater incentives on their side to use chemical weapons, in the hope of triggering western intervention, than there would be on the part of Syrian government forces. … 

During the Bosnian civil war the Bosnian Muslims skillfully leveraged the propaganda value of various massacres to catalyze western intervention. Yet in many cases the identity of the perpetrators was in doubt. From my own several stays in the besieged city of Sarajevo during the war, my own inspection of alleged mortar impact sites (from the “flower” a mortar/bomb impact leaves in pavement an expert can estimate direction and angle of attack), and my conversations both with very senior, serving U.S. officers (one major general, for example, told me if it had always been the Serbs he only wished the U.S. Army had a few mortar squads with that ability to make impossible shots) and with senior UN military officers on the scene, I concluded that some of the more sensational attacks, such as the Markale massacre, were carried out by Bosnian Muslim forces against their own civilians. A few seasoned western reporters concluded the same. To be fair, the evidence was never absolutely definitive and a rancorous debate continues to this day. Shocking, but such is the nature of war. 

Fourth, do we have any options other than doing nothing or attacking Assad? Most accounts assume those are our only two options, but as George Kenney’s article concludes:

If the U.S. government feels that it has to do something, the best thing and, to be honest, the only thing — at the moment — is to provide assistance to the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced, and redouble our efforts at diplomacy.

A diplomatic solution would be the best of all possible worlds, but will never happen so long as our bottom line is “Assad must go.” Given the fate of some other deposed Middle East rulers – Gaddafi was killed and Mubarak was thrown in jail – there is no way Assad will negotiate on those terms.

Given our painful experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, isn’t it time we thought things through more carefully before pulling the trigger on military action yet again?

Martin Hellman

Additional Reference: After I wrote this post, a highly relevant interview came to my attention in today’s Christian Science Monitor. The headline gives the gist, “In an interview, Hans Blix (chief UN arms inspector for Iraq from 2000-2003) says: If US military action in Syria is all about ‘punishing’ Bashar al-Assad to satisfy public and media opinion without even hearing the UN inspectors report, it will be a sad day for international legality.” Blix makes a number of important points which warrant our attention before taking military action.

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars
Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?
Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert
Part 5: Operation Northwoods
Part 6: North Korea
Part 7: Afghanistan
Part 8: Syria
Part 9: Iraq
Part 10: Iran

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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3 Responses to Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 8: Syria

  1. notcatweasel says:

    Unfortunately, with AIPAC holding Congress to ransom and Israel seeking to remake the Middle-East more to its liking, that’s not likely to happen. Of course blowback will happen – it’s a virtual certainty in the light of the attack on the US Embassy in Libya – and of course the Israeli input into US decision-making – in spite of their “being on the ground” so to speak, which is the standard Israeli claim to expertise there – will be totally disasterous.

    Add to that a President wanting to appear strong, and an “intelligence” community wanting to distract from their horrific failures vis-a-vis Snowden, and nobody willing to investigate anything besides their belly-buttons, and it appears very likely that the US will set itself to fail yet again.

  2. Walter Loewenstern says:

    According to the latest news Obama will ask Congress to approve action in Syria. Hopefully Congress will disapprove, and Obama will have some political cover and “save face.” Saving face (and appearing strong) has been important to virtually every President (and gotten the U.S. into a lot of unnecessary wars). I agree with Kenny we should aid the refugees.

  3. Martin Hellman says:

    Walter: That’s what the president says in his just released statement. But he also says this action is necessary. Here’s a chance for each of us, wherever we stand on this issue, to let our Congressional representatives and Senators know how we want them to vote.

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