By Marino de Medici
There is a nagging thought that bedevils the Obama Administration's full court press to get Congressional approval for U.S. intervention in Syria: the coming confrontation with Iran.
Bombing Syria to punish Assad has all the earmarks of the law of unintended consequences, among them a drastic intensification of hostilities in the Middle East. Unleashing a swarm of cruise missiles on Syria will create a very dangerous precedent that in particular will embolden Israel to do what it has been itching to do for a long time: attack Iran to destroy its nuclear installations by claiming that they are an existential threat to the Jewish state.
An American intervention in Syria could even signal the possible participation of the United States in making the bombing of Iran practicable. Above all, the world would look at U.S. intervention in Syria as one more demonstration that the first solution at hand for American leadership is to bomb. Nothing could be more devastating to the image of the United States than the fact that, notwithstanding the validity of the moral arguments to punish the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons, the U.S. does not have the political backing and the operational support of a large majority of countries, many of them close allies, not to mention the U.N. The American press has ignored among other things that some NATO allies are denying the use of their bases and territorial air space to the planned operations against Syria.
The fundamental question, however, is: after the bombing what next? One consequence seems to be certain: conditions in Syria and the region are only likely to worsen. No matter how successful the operation to deter and degrade the Syrian government's decision to use chemical weapons again, the attack will only inflict relative damage to the Syrian military infrastructure and conceivably it would allow President Assad to claim that he has stood up to the superpower thanks to his determination to prevail over the rebels.
In 1991, when President George H.W. Bush decided to "punish" Saddam Hussein for invading neighboring Kuwait, he spent months building a coalition of 34 countries to liberate that country. President Bush and his Secretary of State Baker pressed foreign heads of government including Russia to back the campaign in the Gulf. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution which authorized member states to use "all necessary means" to make Iraq withdraw from Kuwait. It was the most successful and the largest military action undertaken by the United States since the Vietnam War. It had a clear objective that was reached. The removal of Hussein from power had never been one of the Bush Administration's aims.
Compared with the Gulf War, the proposed military action against Syria stands out as a limited undertaking both in terms of strategy and desirable political outcome. The point has been made by several experts that a victory by either side in Syria would be equally undesirable for the United States. While the Obama Administration states that regime change is not its objective, the prospect of the removal of Assad, even if it were orderly, does not serve the scenario of a political reorientation of Syria that is now partitioned de facto. Warlords and religious extremists are running amok. Should the extremists, closely aligned with al Qaeda, succeed in seizing power, the new regime would hardly be sympathetic or cooperative with the United States. Among others, Edward Luttwak has made a realistic point to keep in mind: a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests.
If Assad manages to stay in power with Russian and Iranian help, it would be mostly a victory for Iran in the power struggle with its main antagonist in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia. The United States has a slew of unpalatable scenarios to face in the Middle East, first and foremost a marked loss of influence, particularly if the bombings were to provoke civilian casualties, something that inevitably happens when bombs rain down. Setting a precedent for bombing Iran is definitely not the way to go. On the other hand, the elimination of Assad could bring about the triumph of a radical Islamic opposition that would prove to be inimical to the United States while strengthening the hand of al Qaeda and fomenting terrorism. There are terrible choices in Syria but intervention by Tomahawk is not a solution.
When all is said about Syria, the American people sense that it is not wise to step into a minefield and that the best path is to let dangerous and fanatic extremists fight it out. President Obama, as righteously incensed as he may be about the gassing, should not forget that when Iraq gassed the Kurds of Hallabjah in 1988 the U.S. did not bomb Baghdad. Hussein was our ally then. The same ally did not hesitate to use gas on a large scale against the Iranian army in the 1980-1988 war between Iraq and Iran. But that was then and different standards prevailed. President Obama should follow his instincts and with the help of Congress keep out of the Syrian meat grinder.
Marino De Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.