World News

03.20.13

So, You Want Another War?

On the 10th anniversary of Iraq, we’re about to make the same mistakes in Syria—that could plummet us into another bloody conflict, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

Only in America, where our intellectual energies are fully consumed by reality TV and stranded cruise ships full of poop, could we possibly be committing the very same mistakes regarding Syria that got us into war with Iraq a mere 10 years ago. We are putting ourselves under greater and greater pressure to take the first steps toward war in Syria. God love us, we feel properly guilty about upwards of 70,000 Syrians slaughtered and millions of refugees and displaced people. But the devil lures us into believing that the only way to help these Syrians is for the United States to take those first little military interventionary steps that would soon lead to bigger and bigger ones. This is not anti-war blue smoke; it’s precisely what we did in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. It’s the good old American tradition in world affairs of leaping before we ask. The tough questions are just sitting ducks waiting for us—Congress, journalists, the media, and the administration itself—to ask. If we don’t ask them, and if we don’t answer them to some reasonable degree, it’s likely we will find ourselves at war in Syria within a year.

This go-slow question-raising process applies to the week’s latest crisis as well, that is, the charge that the Syrian government has just used chemical weapons against the rebels. Obviously, this must be checked and hard. But by itself, it is still insufficient reason to start arming the rebels and beginning the slide toward a U.S. war. Better for President Obama to make a one-off U.S. air attack against a prime Syrian military facility—a strong response that fits the crime—and leave it at that for the moment. It’s not the time for a “game changer,” as President Obama threatened. It’s time for a short, sharp, tough message, unless it is proven that Syria used chemical weapons again.

The first slippery slope now is the growing demand from the usual tiny group of interventionists for the U.S. to start supplying arms to the Syrian rebels. On the surface, this seems quite reasonable. President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Army is much better equipped, so why not at least equalize the fight against the dictatorial regime? But we must ask ourselves these questions first:

Who are those good rebels we want to arm? The interventionists seem to take for granted that we know them well. The fact is, the interventionists themselves and the U.S. government don’t know squat about Syria and know even less squat about these rebels. I don’t care what they say about what they know. They don’t know it. Finally, someone spoke the unmistakable truth this week. Talking to a group of Washington insiders, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey revealed what we really know about these rebels: “About six months ago, we had a very opaque understanding of the opposition, and now I would say it’s even more opaque.”

CIA operatives said they knew the mujahedin (future Taliban) after the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan. They knew almost nothing. We and others have had people thrashing around the rebel fighting groups inside Syria the last two years of war; does that mean we know our customers? These rebel customers are far shrewder than our side, and they know how to play us well. Some of them are truly good men and women fighting for their freedom; others are con artists, hiding their true goals. Our experiences in almost every war confirm this. We discover the truths about many of the people we help far too late and at a punishing cost to the United States.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that we do have confidence in some of these rebel fighting groups, and we should go ahead and supply them with better arms. The next question is, what if that doesn’t work? Do you think for one moment that we would say, “Oh, well, that didn’t work. Let’s watch the next episode of The Bachelor,”—and stop there? Not a chance. We will have committed U.S. credibility and power and created new and artificial stakes for our country. The irresistible compulsion will be to give more and to do more, and if that still doesn’t work, do more, and more.

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U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford talks with USAID assistant administrator Nancy Lindborg before testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the ongoing war in Syria on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
The key, I believe, is to focus on the one common interest of all moderate, Arab-allied, and Western parties—preventing a jihadi victory in Syria.

Don’t doubt the pool of excuses for greater military intervention. In case you missed it, Sen. Lindsey Graham already proposed putting U.S. boots on the ground to secure Syrian chemical weapons. And the restrained Sen. Carl Levin now proposes a “no-fly zone” operated by U.S. fighters. And what if these measures fail? And just imagine if every military measure succeeded, and Syria fell into our laps. Would not the British, the French, the Arabs, and the United States quietly slink away from responsibility as they all did in Libya, only to watch as Libya imploded on the rest of North Africa?

If this line of questioning doesn’t seem dispositive, consider why our good friends neighboring Syria aren’t providing the very arms they’re demanding we provide. After all, they have modern arms and equipment that they could give to the rebels. The fact is, they shy away from what they ask us to do. Why? They don’t want to, because it would only then be they—rather than the U.S.—who would be subject to the inevitable Arab backlash. They know there would be heat to take, and they want Americans to take it. It is they who should step forward. That goes for the Turks, especially. And don’t forget, elements within America’s Arab allies secretly provide arms to jihadis as well. And notice, by the way, that the Israelis are not demanding that Washington arm the rebels. Do they know something we don’t?

The very real risk in the U.S. providing arms even to those we believe to be moderate Sunni rebels is that even if they do better, and Assad’s regime is weakened, who would be the real beneficiary? No one disputes that the extremist jihadis are far better positioned to take advantage of defeating Assad. They fight better than the other rebels, they govern better, and it’s hard to find anyone to argue against this proposition. We have to ask ourselves whether a rebel victory in the next year or so would actually result in a victory for the jihadis. And just imagine an al Qaeda–like regime with access to chemical and other modern weapons ruling Syria.

So is there a way to help the moderate Sunnis without benefiting the jihadis? The administration’s answer seems to be to promote negotiations between the Syrian National Coalition in Turkey and the Assad regime. Does this make any sense? Not a chance. There is little indication that these Syrian “political leaders” have much, if any, influence over more than just some of the rebel fighters. So their agreement on any negotiating plan wouldn’t mean much to the rebels who actually have power inside Syria.

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Syrian internally displaced people are seen Tuesday in the Atme camp along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty)

By the same token, it’s hard to see the incentive for Assad’s Alawite, Shiite-offshoot regime to put much faith in this U.S.-proposed bargaining process, either. Assad surely doesn’t want to give up power, and the Alawis have every reason to fear that, should he go, and should they not retain power over their own security in the settlement, the rebels would massacre them. So does Washington have a strategy to make negotiations feasible?

I admire greatly the Obama team’s instincts to avoid the slippery slope of military intervention, including providing arms. This is a big plus. But it’s not enough! They need a strategy for helping the good rebels prevail and for Alawis to protect themselves thereafter. The key, I believe, is to focus on the one common interest of all moderate, Arab-allied, and Western parties—preventing a jihadi victory in Syria. That would represent the biggest threat for all friendlies.

There is one path to sensible strategy and to staying out of trouble. It is for America’s leaders in Congress, the media, and, above all, the administration to learn the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam and get themselves to satisfactorily ask and reasonably answer the tough questions before we selflessly, inadvertently, and foolishly find ourselves in another war.

General Dempsey hammered this point home: “I don’t think at this point I can see a military option that would create an understandable outcome. And until I do, it would be my advice to proceed cautiously.” Aren’t those the words of wisdom after our Iraq experience? My point is this: if this civil war ends by force of arms, it’s going to be bad for the United States. If it ends by a savvy and realistic negotiation strategy with others (not subject to our pressures for escalation) providing limited arms aid, that’s the only chance of a decent outcome for the Syrians, for their neighbors, and for us.