News on the ongoing quagmire in Syria took an unexpected turn last week. In the wake of the recent terror attack, we expected, and heard, numerous demands to expand bombing campaigns against ISIS. What was less expected was the internal letter that surfaced in the State Department with 51 diplomats doing what US diplomats do best–advocate for war. But the war they want is against the government of Syria, rather than ISIS.
The timing of this is confusing, given that ISIS terrorism was the top foreign policy issue of the week and the Syrian government is one of the key enemies of ISIS. But the actual policy isn’t a terribly new idea. The question of whether to bomb the government in Syria, for one purpose or another, has been seriously contemplated since at least late 2013 when video of a chemical weapons attack in Syria went viral.* US public opposition managed to silence the war drums in that case, but the policy remained on the table. The US Government eventually started bombing terrorist targets in Syria in late 2014 and have continued since. To date, however, the bombs haven’t been turned on the Syrian government.
Despite no formal bombing, it would be a mistake to assume the US has been de facto aligned with the Syrian government in the fight against terrorist groups. President Obama and others in the Administration have frequently said that Assad must go. On the ground, the US has attempted to implement this regime change policy with covert action by arming Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups that are fighting the Assad government. This has been going on since sometime in 2012. This contrasts with the common narrative on the subject that the US actions have only been aimed against the terror groups. In fact, the US Government has effectively been fighting on both sides of the same war–quite literally, in some instances.
Fighting on both sides of the same war isn’t good for anyone besides the weapons manufacturers. But it illustrates the challenge that Syria presents. As is so often the case, there are no good options in Syria. The Obama Administration has responded to this by effectively choosing both without committing 100% to either path.
It would be far better, however, if the US stayed out of the situation entirely. Such a position is not an endorsement of the status quo, but a recognition that there is no plausible way for the US to improve the situation and a great many ways that we could make it worse.
To fully understand why this is the case, we recommend a recent article at The Week written by Bonnie Kristian. In the piece, Kristian reminds readers of President Obama’s original, and laudable foreign policy rule, namely “Don’t do stupid shit.” But then she shows how our current intervention in Syria is a clear deviation from this principle, much like Libya was before it.
In brief, Kristian contemplates the three possible outcomes of current US policy considerations:
1. Focused efforts on destroying ISIS, thereby further empowering the Assad regime.
2. Focus efforts on destroying the Assad regime, thereby further empowering ISIS and Al Qaeda or other extremists, much as happened in Libya. Or,
3. Destroy both simultaneously (which would almost certainly require US occupation) and then the US is stuck trying to rebuild Syrian society from scratch. Recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that is unlikely to end well.
The conclusion is clear. Obama needs to get back to his professed rule: Stop doing stupid shit.
Here’s the link: