Should we bomb Syria? A Debate
NOTE: This debate took place between columnists Barbara Kay, Matt Gurney & Chris Selley. I chimed in afterward by email. My comments are interpolated below.
Should the West bomb Syria? Yes. I agree with Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, who wrote: “[our] main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad. Also, Bashar’s brother and principal henchman, Maher. Also, everyone else in the Assad family with a claim on political power. Also, all of the political symbols of the Assad family’s power, including all of their official or unofficial residences. The use of chemical weapons against one’s own citizens plumbs depths of barbarity matched in recent history only by Saddam Hussein. A civilized world cannot tolerate it. It must demonstrate that the penalty for it will be acutely personal and inescapably fatal.” I would add that Assad’s wife should be advised to flee with her children first. And the bombing might not be necessary if the cowardly Assad is offered, and accepts, a deal that would allow him to resign from power and be exiled to Russia.
Short of conquering Syria, there is little the West can do to help the country’s embattled civilian population. Since that’s not going to happen, we can’t save the civilians from further harm.
We should bomb Syria anyway. Not because it will save lives and certainly not because we have a side in the fight. Our interests are served by a protracted conflict between Iran’s proxies on one side and al-Qaeda’s on the other.
But the West’s overall strategic interests are also served by holding the world’s various unpleasant regimes to some standard of behaviour. We don’t have a lot of places left where we can draw that line — we’ve refused to intervene in genocides and protracted civil wars before — but if Western foreign policy is to retain any shred of credibility, there needs to be some things that we just won’t tolerate.
Gassing civilians with nerve agents is a pretty low place to set that bar. But it’ll have to do. Syria, and the world, must know that you don’t get to start throwing weapons of mass destruction at civilians unless you want Uncle Sam and his friends kicking in your door in short order. A few days of taking out Syria’s most advanced weapons — hopefully including its chemical stockpiles — will send that message.
Strictly for the sake of argument, let’s make the following assumptions:
A. that our intelligence on the scope and nature of Bashar Assad’s crimes is solid, and not spiced up, tailored to or taken on faith to support a foregone conclusion;
B. that the same dispassionate expert intelligence tells us that having brought down Assad, the likely ensuing scenarios:
could not in fact be worse for the Syrian people; and
would not pose a serious security threat to the West;
C. that nothing remotely approximating boots-on-the-ground “nation-building,” which we are terrible at, is involved in the plan; and
D. that the good guys in Syria, people who would be a credible force for peace in the aftermath, actually want foreign intervention.
Then yes. Take the bastard out, walk away and leave the Syrians to it. Otherwise — and in any event — Canada should focus its attention on helping those who have fled the country, those who want to flee the country and those inside the country who cannot. How confident am I that the above assumptions are, or will, prove to be correct? Not confident at all.
Wayne K. Spear:
This notion of the conflict as being between “Iran’s proxies” and “al-Qaeda” I have to say does an enormous disservice to the many thoughtful and principled Syrians who you’d find simply don’t fit into either of those categories and who for just that reason don’t get much attention in our media. I notice that this way of seeing the war often corresponds with arguments that focus on Western interests and Western credibility, in other words I have to say self-regarding and Western centered arguments.
Barb, I think you’re right that a campaign of this sort might in fact be necessary to achieve what the opponents of Assad want to achieve. Deserve may be a better word. It’s in principle a defensible position. But you must have noticed the “regime change” option was explicitly removed from the table by Obama. Iraq isn’t the precedence he’s looking at, it’s Kosovo, and anyone who remembers that campaign ought to be chilled at what appears to be another Clinton-styled wag the dog operation.
Actually we’ve been under a doctrine since the first Iraq war which says, look, it’s fine to attack dictators, but war should only be difficult and messy for our enemies. For Americans it must be quick and clean and from a safe distance and with an eye always on the opinion polls. This model of warfare, which is both an illusion and a delusion, almost guarantees what happened in the campaign against Milošević. Clinton’s five-day campaign of targeted cruise missile attacks turned into a 78-day improvisation which killed many civilians and destroyed a wide swath of territory well beyond what a credible attack of military targets would have. And this in the age of satellites and live video feeds! It didn’t deliver the domestic boost Clinton was after, which was after all his primary goal — and there’s a telling Obama precedence here as well, in this overriding concern with perceptions of the President.
So if you were there in the war room, I’m sure you’d be told “yes this is all fine and good, but it won’t go over well in the country.” And this ought to underscore the very problem with Obama, which is that he’s not being cautious or indecisive, he’s poll-driven like Clinton and under the delusion I’ve adumbrated above. That’s why I’d argue it’s dangerous to consent to a military strike in principle. You’ll get this very bad result from a failed president – a president who only a year ago decided negotiating with the Taliban in south-western Afghanistan was better than risking the fall in the polls which was certain to come.