Saturday, 7 September 2013

Syria. We Must Act!

Andrew Coyne (among many others) tries to make a compelling argument for intervention in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad.

I'm sorry, but my cynicism and skepticism just runs too deep on this one. I just don't see how western military powers can implement an effective response that achieves the lofty ideals we are trying to protect.

The use of chemical weapons is apparently a crime that we cannot let go unpunished. The perpetrator in this instance is Syrian President Bashar Assad. So how do we punish Assad? By targeting his "regime". What is a regime exactly? How do we target it?

There's so many assumptions and cloudy definitions in the "we must act" argument and any specifics are sadly lacking. And it's those lack of specifics where the devil is lying in wait. There's the military action itself. Syria has a modern and presumably effective air defense system. So any attack within Syria will first have to militarily suppress those defenses, and be willing to accept the likely civilian casualties that result. Moral quandary. We are now killing Syrians because Assad was killing Syrians. So collateral damage by foreign powers is more morally acceptable than targeted attacks by domestic powers? And don't forget that the final attacks to suppress Syria's chemical weapons capability will also carry a high risk of more civilian deaths.

Then there's the question, will the response be effective? If we're willing to sacrifice Syrian civilians and soldiers on the altar of our morals, we better be damned sure we're successful. So do we have the right information to nearly completely eliminate Syria's chemical capability? Or are we after Assad himself? What are our metrics of success? Are they clearly defined? So far they have not been. Just "We must act to make ourselves feel better."

Assuming we are after specific components of Assad's "regime" and not Assad himself, will he learn his lesson if he survives all this? Will other tyrants and would-be users of chemical weapons be deterred? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "no, they won't". Desperate tyrannical men don't care about deterrence. Especially when that deterrence is arbitrary, publicly debated for months on end, and they get ample warning long before it ever happens to them. So again, what are our metrics of success when acting against Assad's regime? Are they real, or are they all just in our heads?

For arguments sakes I will suppose that Assad is successfully deterred from using chemical weapons after a successful campaign. So instead he starts to firebomb neighborhoods that the rebels hold. Is death by fire really that much better than death by chemical weapon? Is a weapon of not as much mass destruction really better than a weapon of mass destruction? Or are we going to enforce the "Incendiary weapons used against civilians" red line as well?

Perhaps I am asking too much knowledge be revealed in advance. Telling Assad exactly what we are going to attack and what results we will accept as success gives him too much information, information he can use to defend himself. But to not have this information means we must trust US military leadership to do the right thing. Yeah. That trust doesn't exist for me. Does it for you?

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