Syria – I don’t know.

Middle-East-map
The US is clearly going to be taking some action against the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons. I’ve been following events very closely, but haven’t written about it (other than on Twitter, which is where the rough draft of history is written now, frankly) because I have neither time nor emotional bandwidth. I’ll just say a little bit here, but mostly, I wanted to provide some very, very useful (and easily understood) links.

Let me start by saying that there are genuinely no good options on the table. If the US had intervened early in the war, before it became a full-fledged civil conflict, maybe that could have slowed the carnage and led to something reasonable to replace the current regime. But that’s an enormous maybe, I’m not sure what that “intervention” could have or would have looked like, it would have been tremendously destabilizing to the rest of the region (which is likely why it never happened), and it would have cost the American people, as well. But mostly it didn’t happen, so we’ll never know.

So, having said that, I lean toward supporting military action, which I presume will mean damaging Assad’s capacity to carry out chemical weapons attacks in the future. I believe that doing nothing is the worst of several terrible options, because anything that strengthen’s Assad’s hand (which doing nothing would do) can only lead to greater brutality and the entrenchment of that brutality, not to mention strengthening the hands of other powers not known for their gentle natures: The hardliners in Iran (vs. the current Iranian President – you can read a little bit about divisions in Iran by clicking here), Hezbollah, Russia, etc.

I am painfully aware that such action will neither end the civil war nor unseat Assad, and that Syrian civilians may well die as a result. But a) Syrian civilians are already being mowed down daily as if in a threshing field, b) doing even this little bit of damage is also likely (in some way that we’ll never truly be able to measure) to save lives, and c) it’s possible that such activity could have a domino effect on Assad’s capacity to fight at all. On this last point, I’m genuinely just crossing my fingers, because adding chaos to chaos always produces new chaos — but we can never be sure ahead of time if it will be the chaos we want.

But aside from that, I also agree with Secretary of State Kerry that “it matters here if nothing is done.”

It matters because if we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.

I also believe, and I may never be able to prove it, that it matters in a grand, human sense that when people are being slaughtered, someone is willing to do something for them. There is so little we can do — I believe, in some very inchoate way, that it matters that we at the very least try to stand between the Syrian people and chemical weapons.

But mostly, I don’t know. All possible options are bad, all will have consequences we cannot foresee, all will lead to more death and more misery for someone. My only hope is that the limited assault that I believe the Administration is contemplating will ultimately mean that things will be less bad than they might have been. We will likely never know for sure. I am very glad I’m not the one having to make the decisions.

Now for those resources:

  1. Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask – Max Fisher in the Washington Post (the “nine questions” format is a recurrent thing he does, and they’re always excellent)
  2. The U.S. does have nonmilitary options in Syria. Here are four of them – also by Max Fisher. I believe that combining any of these with whatever the Administration has planned would be the better part of wisdom, particularly as concerns aid to the refugees and the countries taking them in. None will end the misery, but all stand a good chance of ameliorating the misery.
  3. The war after the war in Syria – by Joshua Foust, a former intelligence analyst at the Pentagon. Here he discusses who the rebels actually are, and the significance of some apparent splintering in the regime. The reality is that even if Assad disappeared tomorrow, the mayhem would still continue for quite some time.

Finally, a side-note on Iran: Several things have happened lately that look an awful lot to me like signs of a back channel between Tehran and Washington, including (but not limited to) the CIA admission that it was behind the 1953 coup that removed Iran’s only democratically elected leader from office and the CIA admission (coming less than a week after the earlier admission) that it helped Saddam Hussein attack Iran with chemical weapons in the 1980s. These are both things that were widely known, but have never been admitted before.

Bearing in mind all the struggles that the US and Iran have had surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an issue that the Obama White House seems to want to actually resolve, I believe that the Administration has been trying for some time to quitely improve Washington-Tehran communication — now, add to that the fact that the Iran-Syria relationship is vital to both countries (and to Hezbollah, which serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon), and I believe that whatever back channels we have with Iran have been working overtime this week. (Note also that the admission re: the CIA’s assistance to Iraq came after Assad attacked the suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons — again, that piece I mentioned above re: divisions in Iran is useful here).

Look at that, this wasn’t short at all. It’s very hard to write short about all this stuff, even when your bottom line is “I don’t know.” At any rate, to quote my sister: More will be revealed.

It’ll be awful, but at some point, at least we’ll know what it is.

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PS For running updates on what’s unfolding, James Miller is doing a great job on Twitter.

UPDATE If you want to watch President Obama’s brief comments on the situation, you can click here. “A lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it.”