Syria: Searching for a Way into the Quagmire

By David T. Jones on March 29, 2013

Washington, DC - Analysts are clever in finding (and repeating) aphorisms.  One is the definition of insanity as “repeating the same negative action believing that this time it will have a positive result.”

And thus the Syria syndrome.

We have watched the Arab Spring degenerate into a noxious weed patch when we believed flowers had been planted.  We have watched the consequence of removing the Libyan tyrant Qhadafi (vicious but not directly invidious to USG interests) and reaped the results in Benghazi and Mali.  Earlier we watched the shards of former Yugoslavia ethnically cleanse each other into their current status of individual powder kegs awaiting the next Bic lighter.  Earlier still, we decided that the ideological/cultural cross-hatch in Indochina was communism’s existential challenge to democracy.  And these examples are not to mention the still-hanging-in-the-balance efforts to make political structures in Iraq and Afghanistan more amenable to USG (and incidentally Iraqi and Afghani) interests.

But for none of these instances can the outcome be defined as a stellar success.  Indeed, unless we are counting micro victories in Panama and Grenada, the United States hasn’t had an indisputable military success since the end of World War II--67 years ago.

But this circumstance hasn’t deterred a significant segment of the U.S. chattering class commentariat that insists “something must be done” about Syria and (only slightly sotto voce) the USG must do it.

To which the rational observer says, “Wait a minute.  Please wait a minute.”  We may be the “indispensable” nation, but that status does not require Robocop to resolve every conflict.  And thus some of the proposals don’t pass the sniff test:

--A No-Fly Zone.  Take action to prevent Assad’s air force from attacking various rebel contingents.  Supposedly to be done by U.S. carrier jets.  But why involve the United States?  Just to cite a figure, the Turkish Air Force is the third largest in NATO with over 250 F-16s and another 80 plus F-4s.  Certainly, Ankara could enforce a “no fly” zone--should it desire.  Why don’t the rebels request assistance from Ankara?

And for that matter, the Turkish army is the second largest in NATO at 400,000 troops with Leopard and M60 tanks.  After 60 years of NATO-USG related training, it is tough and competent.  Is it beyond imagination to suggest that Ankara could propose a “Coalition of the Willing” to resolve the Syria problem--and do so expeditiously with minimal bloodshed?

--Arm the Rebels.  Supposedly the “good rebels” should get the arms.  Sorting out black cats from gray cats in the dark would be easier.  And who thinks that there is any shortage of arms in the region?  Any rebel group with a half-friendly government in the Gulf can get the funds to purchase anything needed.

What the rebels lack isn’t weapons but military competence.  Presumably, the reports of Syrian Army defections suggest there is an element of competent backbone and, again, neighboring nations are hardly short of skilled trainers that can whip rebels into substantial competence.

Those Elusive Chemical Weapons.  Are we once again on a scavenger hunt for weapons of mass destruction?  Intelligence insists that the Syrian government possesses a variety of chemical weapons.  Sigh.  Does anyone recall our sublime confidence in the intelligence regarding WMD in Iraq?  But let us assume that this time we know what we are hypothesizing.  

Now what does that mean in action terms?  We have publicized vague “red line” statements regarding Syrian government use of chemical weapons.  Perhaps we have communicated more specific threats/promises to Damascus.  Most recently there has been an “incident” which remains undetermined regarding whether chemical weapons were involved--but with Syrian government and rebels furiously blaming each other.  What do we do if it is proved that the rebels were responsible?  A tut-tut public shaming?

Finally, it is increasingly clear that this brutal slugging match will continue.  Assad has had multiple opportunities to cut and run; he stays put.  The Syrian army has had two years to fold its tents and jettison Assad; they continue to fight professionally.  Perhaps they recall the fate of losing military forces in Iran, South Vietnam, etc.  Both Assad’s forces and the rebels have stacked corpses from systematic atrocities.  Is Assad’s pile higher?  Probably.  But the “vengeance is mine” drive behind the rebels assures that Assad will be fed screaming through a wood chipper should he fall into their hands.

There is still time as the old gambler says, “to walk away.”


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