Should We Strike Syria? The Five Best Opinion Columns

The six best arguments for and against an air assault on Syria.

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Following the use of chemical weapons on a massive scale last week, some sort of military action by the United States and its allies is looking increasingly likely. But what sort of action—if any—should the U.S. take, and what would it accomplish? The Daily Beast rounds up some of the most interesting opinions.1. Stay out of it Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

We don’t have the best record of anticipating the effects of military action, Conor Friedersdorf points out at The Atlantic, and if minimizing the suffering of the Syrian people is our goal, cruise missiles probably aren’t the best tool. Military action could prove very costly, both in lives and money, and could end up making the situation worse—what would the U.S. do if the regime collapses and Islamist extremists take its place, Friedersdorf asks. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently told Congress, we could end up unleashing the very chemical weapons we’re trying to control. “Hawks are most interested in humanitarian causes that can be carried out by force,” Friedersdorf writes. “There is no reason the rest of us should share their world view, given how many times it has resulted in needless slaughter on a massive scale. It's impossible to know for certain what war would bring. That is the strongest case against going to war.”

2. Keep arming the rebels ... until they start winningEdward Luttwak, The New York Times

Call this the Machiavellian argument against military intervention. Edward Luttwak, writing in The New York Times, argues that the best-case scenario for the U.S. is to let the two sides continue to kill each other. The argument rests on Luttwak’s belief that the Syrian opposition is now dominated by religious extremists and that Assad’s fall would turn the country into a hotbed for terrorism. “By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies,” Luttwak writes. He goes farther, saying the U.S. should preserve a stalemate by arming the rebels when Assad seems to be winning and backing off when the tides change.3.Assad must fall Robert Satloff, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

What would the U.S. be trying to accomplish in a military strike? Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, divides the possible goals into three categories. The first possible objective—and the one it sounds like the Obama administration is operating under—is to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, discouraging it from further atrocities, and showing that Obama’s “red lines” can’t be crossed with impunity. This could be short-term and (relatively) inexpensive, consisting of cruise missiles fired at military targets. But Satloff argues that the U.S. should go farther, either trying to “alter the balance of power between the various rebel groups and the Syrian/Iranian/Hezbollah alliance” or “bring about the president’s 2011 declaration that Assad should go.” Both these options would require a major military commitment, but Satloff thinks it would be worth it to prevent a victory by Assad and encouraging his Iranian backers.4.Boots on the ground Andrew Slater, The Daily Beast

If changing the direction of the Syrian war is the U.S.’s objective (and not simply punishing Assad for using chemical weapons), what kind of military commitment does that entail? Former Special Forces officer Andrew Slater believes airstrikes won’t be enough; the best option, he writes, is to send in special forces. Slater writes that the 1999 war in Kosovo is a good illustration of the limits of airstrikes: the Serbian government held out for 10 weeks while NATO bombardments took a heavy toll on the civil infrastructure. (Slater isn’t the only person to see Kosovo as a discouraging example of what airstrikes can do.) Instead of cruise missiles, Slater thinks the U.S. should send in special forces to advice and fight alongside Syrian rebels. He acknowledges that this sort of action has its own ominous precedent: Somalia in 1993.5.Use strikes to bring Assad to the tableGayle Tzemach Lemmon, Foreign AffairsOver at Foreign Affairs, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon says the best-case scenario in Syria would be to use military strikes, or the threat of them, to bring Assad to the negotiating table with the opposition and arrange a peaceful transfer of power to a transitional government. Lemmon acknowledges that this is sort of a moon shot, though, considering Assad’s determination to maintain power and his awareness that the U.S. doesn’t have much appetite for a long-term military operation. “In other words, the United States should use the leverage it has, in the form of continued pressure and looming military strikes, to help get all sides to the table,” Lemmon writes. “That could involve striking key Assad regime assets related to its chemical weapons program even while dangling offers of negotiations, in the hopes that a bargain can be struck between all the players and the war will end with a transfer of power—no matter how unlikely that may look at the moment.

6.No more hand-wringingTony Blair, The Times of London (Note: The full article is behind a paywall.)

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has some experience in Middle East military interventions, writes that we can’t let the experience of past quagmires discourage us from getting involved in Syria. “Western policy is at a crossroads: commentary or action; shaping events or reacting to them,” he writes. “After the long and painful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I understand every impulse to stay clear of the turmoil, to watch but not to intervene, to ratchet up language but not to engage in the hard, even harsh business of changing reality on the ground. But we have collectively to understand the consequences of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work.” If we don’t act, Blair warns that Syria could become “mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al Qaida, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s.”