What is our basis for attacking Syria?

I haven’t been following the news closely, but people have been asking for my opinion on Syria and whether or not an American military adventure is warranted.

What would be our basis for attacking people in Syria?

  1. Is it the case that the government there is less legitimate than other non-elected governments worldwide? (this Freedom House map shows that many parts of the world, including Syria, are “not free”)
  2. Is it that the government has been indiscriminate in its response to a rebellion? (but governments all over the world respond harshly to any challenge to their authority; the Sri Lankan Civil War resulted in a huge number of civilian deaths (see this article) and there were no calls for U.S. intervention; the American Civil War included actions that some consider to be war crimes (see this list))
  3. Is it that the government has used chemical weapons? (but note that Syria apparently has not signed any treaty regarding chemical weapons, according to Wikipedia)
  4. Is it that the U.S. has something to gain from a change in government in Syria?

And if we were to attack the Syrians, what would our goals be for the military operation? The fall of the existing government? To persuade the existing government to stop using chemical weapons (if indeed they have been using them)? I see in the news that President Obama has asked Congress to approve an attack on Syrians, but did he state an objective that the attacks were supposed to achieve?

Background: Wikipedia entry on the Syrian Civil War

[Separately,“U.S. Soldiers Find Surprise on Returning to Afghan Valley: Peace”, from yesterday’s New York Times, implies that people on the other side of the globe get along better without the U.S. military being involved.]

17 thoughts on “What is our basis for attacking Syria?

  1. The most cynical, and sadly, accurate seeming, explanation I’ve heard, is that we’d just be doing it to prolong the stalemate. The government forces have been winning, albeit slowly, and it’s in the US’s best interest if neither side wins.

    In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

    By this explanation, the human rights issue would just be political cover for the US to keep both sides fighting as long as possible.

  2. Our entire middle east policy leaves me dumbfounded. I’m not especially clever and I am not stupid, so nothing makes sense. It seems there are four possibilities:

    1) The line on the TV for the hoi polloi is basically truthful. Iraq really was about yellow cake and aluminum tubes. Syria really is about chemical weapons. This seems ridiculous to me.

    2) Kissinger and Brzezinski and co. have information and schemes in service of US national interests that do make good sense when fully explained. These schemes are kept secret and can’t be explained nakedly, because they would be morally offensive to many. I’ve certainly never heard anything along these lines that makes sense.

    3) There’s a deep state at work. Perhaps significant numbers of key Americans are owned by Saudi, Qatari, or Israeli interests. Consider the claimed Sibel Edmonds revelations about foreign paid politicians. Or maybe it’s key corporate interests. Whatever. The point is the reason the policies make no sense from an American national perspective is blackmail and cash are orchestrating them for foreign interests.

    4) The powers that be really are just shockingly inept and stupid. Their motivations don’t matter because they never come close to achieving any goals. The motivations might really be the same as those explained to the hoi polloi (see #1), or they might not, but it doesn’t matter.

    I have no idea which of these comes closest to the truth.

  3. A politician’s “greatness” has long been closely tied to how big a mountain of corpses he stands on. Perhaps Obama just wants to increase his body count so that historians will like him better.

  4. The basis for attacking Syria is use of chemical weapons. Period. Of all potential methods, chemical weapons pose most risk from terrorist attack. Where “risk” is defined as [probability of occurrence] + [adverse effects].

    Nuclear weapon is not likely (low P), due: difficult to obtain, requires high tech personnel, difficult to transport, fairly easy to detect w/x-ray, radiation sniffing.

    Plane w/full fuel load into building, low P, and only moderate effect. Airport security measures reduce P. Worse case may kill a few hundred, up to a few thousand. They got really “lucky” on 9/11. If the buildings didn’t come down the loss would have been limited to a few hundred, 1000 max.

    Chemical weapons are the worse. Easy to obtain (high P). Easy to transport in small packages (high P). Difficult to detect by x-ray or sniffing (high P). A coordinated chemical attack in a subway or large office building ventilation system could kill thousands (large adverse effect). And you won’t know the attack has happened until people start keeling over. —- Very High Risk

    The U.S. attack is meant to remind Syria (in a way that they will remember) and others in the world that the United States will not tolerate use of chemical weapons.

    Here’s how it works: Let’s say I draw a line on my front lawn and advise all not to cross the line. You cross the line. I remove your lower jaw with a right hook. You may think twice before crossing the line again. However, if you do, I then remove both legs below the knee. Now you have no lower jaw and you’re a double amputee. If you cross the line again, I mount your head in my den. You dig?

  5. sam, Joshua provides #2: Kissinger was pretty open that his foreign policy in the 1970s was “always favor the weaker” because groups busy fighting each other aren’t fighting us. While logical, the long-term consequence seems to be to create lot of people with legitimate grievances against the US over time.

    But aside from the pragmatic concerns, the real question is moral / ethical philosophical / religious: When is a nation obligated to intervene in external conflicts? Did Philip, as an able-bodied young man in the 1980’s, fail a moral obligation by not going to Compton, Cabrini-Green, or Queens to intervene in the Crack Wars between the Crips and the Bloods? Which side should he have supported and why (probably the Bloods: MIT colors)? How does the obligation change when applied to a nation, especially one with a large national debt?

    One part of the question is extremely uncomfortable these days: is it acceptable to incorporate cultural, religious, and ethnic ties into the moral calculation? How do we do this in a truly multi-ethnic multi-religious society (something that existed only in a very weak form prior 1970)?

    For example, suppose a guy named Hai Thlar had been born in Laos, taken power in Thailand, systematically killed Khmers, invaded Cambodia, and started bombing raids against Sri Lanka. While I would feel bad for the victims of Hai Thlar, I would probably not advise US involvement. But I wish the US had done more, sooner in WWII. It’s only different because of my genetic, linguistic, and cultural ties to Europe (especially Britain), and my respect for / solidarity with for the Jewish people via Christianity. These affiliations are not just a personal idiosyncrasy, but politically legitimate because they are consistent with the historical mainstream American identity: if the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written in Sinhala, then it would be logical to support protecting Sri Lanka from Hai Thlar.

    Simple version: Since Ottoman Syria didn’t show up for the American Civil War, why do we have to participate in theirs?

  6. Syria *must* be about geopolitics. It’s about Iran, Saudi, Israel, and Russia in some convoluted way. I just wish somebody would explain it to me so I could understand how it makes sense from an American perspective. I can maybe guess at Israeli and Saudi interests. What I fundamentally don’t get is how it’s clearly problematic *for me* if Iran has a sphere of influence.

    I get the impression Bismark was fairly clear about objectives. When Britain and Russia were playing the great game a reasonably informed person could grasp what they were at. The modern USA in the mid-east and the south china sea? I have no clue why it does what it does.

  7. To play the cynic. It would seem that Obama’s claims of government transpa. . . Oh look Syria is using chemical weapons!

  8. Not in favour of our lone (or US-France) intervention … But I think the real basis is that there is a genocide there, with much higher numbers of people believed killed (and only since 2011) than in any other ongoing civil war, except for Colombia, which has been going on since 1964, and Somalia, which has been going on for 10 yrs longer than Syria’s civil war. (if one believes Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_military_conflicts) This justification of sheer numbers of people killed is also what I heard pundits (sorry, they all blend together for me) say on NPR this morning.

  9. My family and I immigrated from Aleppo, Syria, back in 1981 when I was 15. Since then, I visited several times and so did my family. My parents, and grandparents lived most of their life in Syria, and I still have may relatives who are stuck there. So, I speak with experience.

    Any one who is from the Middle East, and is a moderate, will tell you that Syria (as well as Lebanon) are the most open and secular society. Yes, the Middle East is based on dictatorship leaders, but I take a secular dictator over one that’s still old fashion with twisted mind and rules: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_religious_police

    In so called “liberated” areas in Syria, family and friends that I know are being forced to follow Sharia laws — even if you are not Muslim — something my parents and I never saw with the Al-Assad family dictatorship in over 50 years (or even prior to them taking power). Bashar Al-Assad is far more open and secular then his father was. If he was as quickly as his father was when he crushed the upraising back in 1979-1982 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hama_massacre, this whole thing would not have escalated to this level.

    For as long as religion is part of government policy, the Middle East needs dictators to keep the region stable. In such a case, I take any secular dictator over one driving by religion mind set: I will trust Iran’s government over Saudi’s, in a heartbeat.

  10. I applaud you as well, Paul….but…I want to be sure that this isn’t another way to prolong and increase military spending (now that Afghanistan is winding down), and that we’re not just doing this to protect an oil field and continue our dependance on foreign oil. In other words, business as usual.

    If it truly is a response to thwart terrorists from obtaining and using chemical weapons I’m all for it.

  11. Oh Paul…. do you really think that is a solution? Did it ever occur to you that if you remove a jaw, or legs, or mount ahead, then as a result they, or their brothers, or friends, will do everything in their power to do the same to you, your brothers, your friends, your children? And that this way of reacting will continue until you and your enemy are both dead, having living senseless lives filled with warfare? And that after you and your enemy are gone, perhaps you will have been successful in getting your children to war against the children or your enemies? Really, really can’t conceive of anything better than this Paul?….

  12. @paul kramarchyk: Your comment of “Let’s say I draw a line on my front lawn and advise all not to cross the line …” but in Syria case (and many other “red lines” the US has drawn) the red line is not in your property to impact you for you to take action.

    We have far more death in the US from car accidents [1], and drug overdose [2], to name some; should other countries draw a “red line” against the US for such death? Should I draw a “red line” against you for not keeping your front lawn clean (or keeping it too clean vs. mine)?

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_overdose#Epidemiology_and_Statistics

  13. Does the Kirkuk-Baniyas oil pipeline project suffer if the Assad government no longer controls Syria?

    Will Syria deteriorate further into generalized civil war if Al-Assad is toppled, as has Iraq with its despot gone, and as did the former Yugoslavia? If that happens, will Hezbollah and its Iranian supporters prevail, or will Sunni extremists with their outside supporters prevail? Or neither?

    Chemical weapons are obviously indiscriminate weapons in a war where massed forces do not feature and rebels circulate freely in an urban environment where civilians may be sympathetic or at least cowed into acquiescence or cooperation. Understandably, the U.S. has an interest in wanting no use and certainly no trade in such weapons, regardless the signatory status of Syria. Does our launching airstrikes do anything by itself to prevent further use of those weapons, or is the threat of their use primarily to motivate Al-Assad to agree to concessions for fear of precision airstrikes in Damascus tilting the civil war toward the rebels?

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