The Case for Engagement In Syria

Although I had originally planned to write a response to Cinzia's frustrating call for her native Italy to abandon a central pillar of the most successful Western alliance in world history, the world had other plans. Now in my social media discussions, I find myself swatting Putin's flies, who keep buzzing in my ear that Bashar al-Assad is either the subject of a disinformation campaign by the wicked 'Deep State' or, more innocently, that he is the only viable option for keeping Syria in one piece; that all of his opponents are insane or theocratic. More importantly, they want to know what is at stake for the United States in Syria. Why does the Syrian Civil War call for an American response? And what would be the goal of an American response?

I am not sold on the wisdom of toppling Assad, primarily because I believe Americans currently lack the stomach to commit to a long-term project like assembling and helping to sponsor an interim government; we saw in the Iraq War that a large and vocal segment of the population is ready to pull the plug on a military venture at the first sight of trouble. Our history is short, our geography renders us uniquely secure, and the wars we have been drawn into have been short, conventional ground wars with conspicuous signs of unambiguous victory. Our nation has no frame of reference at all for what an unconventional, asymmetric war should look like, and thinks wars should be short, sweet, and simple. I think America can accomplish what it wants to accomplish, if it knows what it wants to accomplish -- but our people must understand that there will be no instant gratification. At a time when we are plagued by so many problems of our own, it is a lot to ask of Americans.

But there are reasons for the United States to take an interest in the conflict. The fate of Syria matters to next-door Iraq, whose government once again shows a fighting chance of functioning, owing to the long-awaited near-defeat of ISIS. (Let us note that the old argument that toppling Assad opened the door for ISIS to rule is no longer valid.) It matters to our allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, and our friends the Kurds. It matters for our enemies Russia and Iran, who are far more tangibly invested in the conflict than we are; the longer we keep the conflict going, the more we can bog them down and keep our options open. It matters for the sake of punishing chemical warfare rather than allowing a tyrant to show the world that he can use these weapons without fear of retribution -- a strategy of both punishment and deterrence. 

Some bestow relative praise on Assad for his secularism. It is time to recognize that the dream of a stable Middle East ruled by secular strongmen is as delusional as any neoconservative fantasy circa 2003. From the days of Nasser, secular autocracy has been heralded as a potential solution to the problem of a fractured Middle East, and it has failed again and again, most recently in the wave of revolutions called the 'Arab Spring', which was really a series of revolts against secular rulers. How many times must the imposition of secularism fail before we abandon this fantasy? How much longer will we deny the Middle East's 1,200-year legacy of Islamic rule? And this is to say nothing of the moral emptiness of settling for tyranny for the sake of convenience -- to endorse despotism because it is easier to sit on our hands.

Many people who flee into Assad's arms believe they are fleeing Islamic mobs: they assume that any Islamic government is going to be tyrannical; that the rebels all want to institute Saudi Arabia on steroids in Syria; that we can't trust any group advocating religion in government to be anything but radical or militant. I cannot guarantee that this is not the case; no one can gauge what potential exists in some of these groups to compromise until we try. If we do decide to topple Assad, we will need to, with a large international coalition, sponsor a coming together of representatives from among the various factions to hammer out a semi-liberal pluralistic system that allows for several elements of sharia in government but recognizes Allah alone as sovereign over life and death, and does not allow individuals to take the law into their own hands. This must include representatives from the Assad regime, since they know much of importance about what various factions among the people want and what they will tolerate. This is an important lesson we must learn from Iraq: that purging all elements of the old regime is counterproductive. 

Again: I am not sold on the wisdom of doing that. But I am afraid that President Trump, determined to turn his presidency around, upend expectations, and divert attention away from his scandals, might, under the advisement of militarist John Bolton, rush into Syria to topple Assad without any plan for what comes next: our fatal mistake in both Iraq and Libya. America can accomplish what it wants to accomplish militarily, but it must avoid acting reactively and have a tangible sense of what it is trying to accomplish before going in. If we aren't prepared to do that, then we ought to just take the path of least resistance, lob some missiles at Assad when he's especially bad, but otherwise allow Russia to prop him up. 

Alex Knepper