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Obama Has Good Reason Not to Intervene in Syria

Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan show US military intervention in the Middle East doesn't work.
 
 
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After President Obama’s remarks about chemical weapons use in Syria, many newspaper articles appeared suggesting that he was rethinking his opposition to US involvement there. They were wrong, and weren’t listening. Obama said we don’t know who used the chemical weapons or to what extent. That isn’t building a case for intervention, it is knocking it down.

Olivier Knox gets this story right, in part because he asked experienced Washington, D.C. insiders.

Obama learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that US military intervention in the Middle East doesn’t actually work very well. Iraq is still a security basket case, with over 400 dead in bombings and attacks in April (nowhere near the high of 3000 a month in 2006 when the US was in charge of security, or even as much as contemporary Mexico,  where over 1,000 a month have been dying in the drug war — but still no paradise). It has been 11 years and we are still stuck in Afghanistan, nor have we “stood up” a credible Afghan government.

Why people think a US intervention in Syria would go better, I don’t know. They always forget that generals are about winning quickly, even at the cost of civilian lives, and that a lot of carpetbaggers always show up in any war to find ways of profiting from it. Billions were looted from Iraq by American bureaucrat-criminals.

Sen. John McCain argues for an aerial intervention, which more or less worked in Libya. But Syria is not like Libya in any way.

Syria’s weapons depots, tanks and artillery are not out in some desert where they can be bombed with few casualties. They are in the cities. Bombing them would kill a lot of innocent civilians. Even just trying to take out the large number of anti-aircraft batteries (the essential first step of any aerial intervention) would be very costly in lives.

Everyone always forgets that if foreigners bomb a hated regime’s installations and accidentally thereby kill large numbers of innocent civilians, the dead civilians show up on the front page and everyone turns against the foreign air force. NATO only avoided this outcome in Libya by staying mostly away from the cities (it did not actually intervene in the Misrata siege). The few bombing raids on Gaddafi’s HQ, the Bab al-Aziziyah, did give the regime some propaganda points, since you can’t bomb downtown Tripoli without casualties.

So an air intervention is impractical in Syria, because its geography and the distribution of weapons are just different from those in Libya. And, any air intervention could well become unpopular both in Syria and the world, really, really fast.

A limited and very careful air intervention could possibly do some good, but in my experience military enterprises cannot be conducted in a ‘limited’ or ‘careful’ way.

If the concern is chemical weapons, those cannot be dealt with (must not be dealt with) by bombing them. That step would just release them into the air and kill people. Since McCain and other interventionists are not proposing US troops on the ground, it is unclear how he thinks the chemical weapons can be secured.

Moreover, the simple fact is that the US does not have good intel on where the chemical weapons are stockpiled. In the absence of really good such information, aerial bombardment of military bases risks accidentally hitting the canisters and releasing clouds of toxic gases onto civilian populations.

If an aerial intervention is not practicable, what about arming the rebels? The latter are already armed, so what this proposal really entails is giving them medium and heavy weaponry. But there is no way to keep such weapons out of the hands of radicals within the rebel camp. Moreover, having a lot of medium to heavy weaponry flood into a country can destabilize it for decades. If the Syrian rebels got shoulder-held heat-seeking missiles, would the Israeli civilian airlines, El Al, ever be safe again, in the aftermath?

 
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