Rubin Reports

If You Think America Should Go to War in Syria, You Haven't Been Paying Attention

“You should be careful what you wish for, as the reasons for war get confused. One person can be very clear in their motives, but others can have different agendas.”

Dougray Scott

I am amazed at the current U.S. debate over Syria. Those urging intervention may be driven by humanitarian intentions, to end the fighting and ease suffering. But whatever they are proposing—no-fly zones, safe havens, direct supply of weapons to rebels, etc.—have they actually considered how four highly visible, recent precedents turned out?

Afghanistan:  There is no question but that after September 11, 2001, the United States had to invade Afghanistan, destroy the al-Qaeda infrastructure there, and overthrow its Taliban partner. Yet today, twelve years later, U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan! The delusion of rebuilding that country has predictably failed. About 2,200 Americans have died, many of them killed by Afghan “allies.” The Afghan government is not exactly “grateful.” The Taliban is still strong. Again, that war was necessary, but how expensive and difficult has it been for the United States to extricate itself! Even after four and one-half years of Barack Obama U.S. soldiers are still there.

Egypt: U.S. intervention in Egypt overthrew an ally. Many Egyptians now see, despite the talk about democracy, that they are worse off. Talk about freedom quickly turned into domination by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist mobs. The economy is going down the drain. Christians are under siege. Women’s rights are shrinking. Other than a free media, it is hard to see what Egyptians got out of it. Certainly, this intervention was a strategic defeat for the United States.

Iraq: Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, about 4500 American soldiers have been killed.  Tens of billions of dollars have been spent. Whether the war was worthwhile can still be debated. The Iraqis have suffered greatly yet have also gained the most of the four cases cited here, but it is still estimated that about 200,000 Iraqis have died, mainly in sectarian fighting, which still continues today though at a lower level. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein unleashed a Sunni-Shia war of terrorism that could be dwarfed by what might happen in Syria. The U.S. forces needed, it was said, to remain in the country until a new Iraqi army was trained.  On strategic grounds, Iraq has turned around sharply, though it is still too friendly with Iran for U.S. tastes and supports the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. It is also a country where the vice president had to flee after the prime minister charged him with terrorism.

Libya: In this case, U.S. involvement was indirect and caused no U.S. casualties. While the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qadhafi would have been a boon to U.S. strategic interests in earlier years, by the time it actually happened Qadhafi was relatively neutralized.  Being governed by an elected regime may be counted as a gain for Libyans, but anarchy, rule by militia, and extremism are still strong. Arms from Libyan arsenals were smuggled to terrorists in different countries. And of course the murder of four Americans in Benghazi shows the continued existence of terrorists—even al-Qaeda—the weakness of the government, and the unpredictability of Libya’s future.

This is a complex picture. Four dictatorships have been overthrown and four elected governments replaced them. How to measure the change?

U.S. strategic gains? It is true that the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein—two of America’s most active enemies—was a clear gain. But once having said that, it is not clear that these four governments contribute much to real U.S. interests.

Egypt’s change is negative. Libya is a client state, yet its main usefulness has been to funnel arms and money to opposition Islamist groups in Syria. Iraq is not helpful on two priority U.S. interests, Iran and Syria. Afghanistan is still angry at the United States and continues to be a playground for Pakistani intrigues with anti-American Islamists. Plus the fact that Pakistan had obtained billions of dollars in U.S. aid while giving safe haven to the very al-Qaeda leaders that the money was going to help catch.

Now there come demands for an escalated U.S. intervention in Syria, as if none of these precedents need to be considered. Yes, the advocates of involvement usually don’t seek direct military action. True, they are upset at the death of 70,000 people, with the number certain to rise higher. This is not a partisan issue. The Obama government’s policy helped create this mess by helping to build up an Islamist leadership in Syria. But the Obama administration’s current apparent reluctance to escalate involvement is a good idea, though perhaps motivated by the wrong reasons.

Yet what are the arguments on the other side?

● Does the United States want to fight on some level to install a radical Islamist regime in Syria that is certain to be anti-American?

● How will Americans feel if their aid and weapons are used in the future to murder Alawites and Christians, perhaps some day invade the Kurdish autonomous area, help terrorists in other countries, shoot down civilian airliners by such terrorists, and suppress moderate Sunni Muslims?

● Do Americans really expect gratitude or friendship or strategic cooperation from revolutionary Islamists for their help in winning the civil war?

● Is the United States then going to give billions of dollars to rebuild Syria’s economy for an Islamist regime?

● Does the United States have the necessary influence and leverage to force Jabhat al-Nusra’s (Syrian al-Qaeda) allies to abandon it? No. It already tried to do so and failed miserably.

● Despite all the vague talk about moderate fighters, how many such people actually exist? Ironically, most of them are defectors from Assad’s army, who don’t have such a pro-democratic record. But the main drawback is that they are very weak and disorganized. Talk of setting up a zone under their control is absurd. In fact, the latest trend is the massive defection of soldiers from the “moderate” Free Syrian Army, which is the great hope of U.S. policy, to al-Qaeda!

Don’t get me wrong. On balance, I’d like to see the Assad regime fall and to see an end to the suffering of Syrian civilians. From a strategic standpoint, though, the fact that the Sunni and Shia Islamists—who both want to destroy U.S. interests and wipe Israel off the map—are battling in Syria may not be the worst thing in the world.

Remember, too, that the United States covertly intervened in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) on the side of Iraq, for reasons that could well be justified, but ended up fighting two wars against Iraq in the next fifteen years.

Remember that Americans cheered the downfall of the repressive shah only to see a more repressive, far more aggressive, and far more anti-American regime replace it, not to mention the seizure of American hostages.

Remember also that Americans cheered the downfall of the Libyan dictator only to see a raging anarchy in which American diplomats were not taken hostage but murdered. Today, their killers walk the streets of Benghazi providing security, untouchable by Libya’s government, laughing at the Americans who empowered them.

Things in the Middle East are not so simple.