Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Confused About Syria

NPSIA just started a program where we have an CAF officer as a Defence Fellow.  This means we mentor him (in the current case) on his research, he learns how we think, and we get to learn how such folks think.  There is more to it than that, but his weekly presence is fostering a weekly brown bat that pushed me on how to think about the Syria bombing last week (the annual bombing?).

I have been reluctant to blog about it because I have been confused.  Why?  Because I see some merits on punishing those who cross a very important line, but I also have problems with who is doing the acting and how it is being done and the reality that Assad can just go along and keep killing people.  Let me explain as I think through this.

Chemical weapons are a distinctly different form of warfare, that using them not only violates international law but our sense of what is so beyond the pale.  One could look at Trump's actions and they might appear to be enforcing the red line that Obama defined but did not defend.  Indeed, when one of my colleagues asked why France and the UK joined in the effort, I could argue (not that I entirely believed it) that they were participating to help define the effort as one of upholding the international order.  That is, by their participation, it made the attack less of a Trump gut reaction to things he saw on TV and more of a multilateral effort to punish violation of a key aspect of international law.

This raised all kinds of objections by the smart folks at NPSIA:
  • Trump is really not a guy who cares about the international order, so the UK/France participation is putting lipstick on a pig (my words, not my colleagues).
  • What about the other parts of the international order that Assad is challenging?  After all, the attacks basically say--kill your people sans chemical weapons, please.  
    • I responded with a notion of broken windows theory applied to IR--that if you tolerate chemical weapons being used, it opens up the door to other violations.  My colleagues pointed out that the non-broken windows in Syria are in burning buildings.  Ooops.
 Which gets to why I am not a fan of the attacks:
  • Trump could not convey credibility if his life wife brand depended on it.  See this explanation of his decision.
  • I have always argued that countries have to be selective about their inteventions--they can't intervene everywhere.  But this seems to be ridiculous--only use force when there are more than 40 people killed via chemical weapons and it is on tv a lot.  There have been plenty of chemical weapons attacks since last year's response.  Maybe this is just an annual thing?
  • Trump decided not to notify Congress because he had to buttress his tweet quickly.
  • Once again, all kinds of complicated civ-mil stuff going on...
  • It was pretty much the least Trump could do--double the number of missiles, increase the number of targets.  Next year's annual attack will involve 200 missiles and 8 targets?  Which again sends a signal of not being serious.
  • Yet being serious would potentially mean killing Iranians and Russians.  
 So, yes, this is the land of lousy policy alternatives. Russia is protecting Syria at the UN and now providing more extensive human shields on the ground.  I was and remain very concerned about what might happen to 2000 American soldiers and marines on the ground in Syria as they could be targeted if the US seriously threatens Syria (having flashbacks to Bosnia 1994-95).

Trump's impulse to get out of Syria is the right now, but it takes work and patience, things he lacks.

One of my colleagues asked if we should just acknowledge that Assad won the Syrian civil war, and the answer is probably yes.  The problem is that outright victories in civil wars is highly correlated with subsequent mass killings.  A peace produced by an Assad victory would probably not lead to the return of refugees, and, if it did so, I would worry very much about their prospects.

So, what to do?  Damned if I know.  I know what not to do: don't hit the Russians, don't evade Congress, don't send more troops, and, for fuck sake, don't be baited by tweets and by Fox.

Update: ` suggested that a good response would be to let in more Syrian refugees.  Which is the smart and right play.  But not by this government of xenophobes and Islamophobes.

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