The PJ Tatler

Distraction Time: Who's Up for a War in Syria?

The Obama administration came to power armed with an arsenal of bad ideas, from ObamaCare to its porkulus to Solyndra to apologizing for American being a consequential superpower. Going to war in Syria on behalf of jihadists may or may not be its absolute worst idea, but it’s up there with the worst of them. It’s also coming at a time when we should all sing the refrain “I question the timing.” The administration is mired in scandals: The abuse of the media, the IRS abuse of the president’s opponents, and Benghazi. Talking up a war in Syria may be an attempt to distract attention from those scandals.

With Europe pushing to arm the anti-government rebels in Syria and President Obama reportedly seeking plans for a no-fly zone over the war-torn country, the United States is inching closer to intervening directly in a conflict in which more than 70,000 people have already died.

White House officials insist that Obama has made no decision on providing arms to the Syrian rebels or establishing a no-fly zone there, saying all options remain on the table. But recent developments are ratcheting up the pressure on the president to use American force to help end the two-year-civil war.

Those developments include, ominously, Russia’s decision to ship advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Assad.

In a May 22 Wall Street Journal op-ed, former US Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Jack Keane and the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka argue in favor of intervention, to the point of handing anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian rebels. They argue, implausibly, that the US can ensure that none of those missiles will end up in the hands of al Qaeda, which could be expected to ship them from Syria to the US or Europe to use against civilian airlines.

To successfully target Assad’s air power, one option is to outfit moderate rebel units vetted by the CIA with man-portable antiaircraft missiles, otherwise known as Manpads. Providing more moderate rebels with Manpads is a reasonable choice, though unlikely to be decisive because time is on Assad’s side. There is also a risk that the weapons could be diverted to al Qaeda-related groups. Despite that risk, however, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus recommended this strategy last summer.

A cleaner and more decisive option is to strike Syrian aircraft and the regime’s key airfields through which Iranian and Russian weapons are flowing to government forces. If American forces use standoff cruise missiles and B-2 stealth bombers for these strikes, they will be out of the enemy’s reach.

With all due respect, Keane and Pletka may be insane. They’re trusting the same CIA that allowed the Obama White House to rewrite its Benghazi findings to vet Syria’s rebels. The CIA has not shown that it’s capable of doing that, particularly under the Obama administration that refuses to even call Islamic terrorism by its name. Jihadists are not the entire Syrian rebellion, but they are its spine and mind.

Syria’s civil war is already slowly going regional, spreading into Lebanon while attracting strikes from Israel. Russia’s intervention is about keeping a customer for its arms industry satisfied. It’s hard-nosed and cynical, but ultimately rational from a Russian point of view. It’s also, ultimately, anti-jihadist. That’s certainly not a bad thing.

A US intervention on behalf of jihadists would be neither hard-nosed nor rational. If the US and Europe line up on one side and Russia lines up on the other, Syria could become the flash point for a far larger and more lethal war. Syria is not worth triggering a world war over.

Then, there are the consequences of US involvement. Syria looks like a lose-lose proposition. If the rebels we back lose the war and Assad stays, we’re discredited as a power and Iran, Assad’s ultimate backer, is strengthened. If we win and Assad goes, who replaces him? The devil we know, Bashar Assad, is a nasty dictator and an enemy of the US but he is at least secular. If the Libya precedent holds, the Obama administration will adopt a kill ’em and leave ’em approach, in which the US will not put boots on the ground to have any strong say in the post-war outcome. In that vacuum, there are two likely outcomes. One, Russia installs another puppet to whom it can sell arms and with whom Iran can forge another alliance. Or two, Assad’s likely successors would come with a strong Muslim Brotherhood/al Qaeda flavor. That would be better than the status quo ante? That would be better, in the long run, than watching both the regime and the jihadists exhaust themselves while Russia gets itself mired in someone else’s war?

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, especially, the revolution in Egypt should have taught us all a massive lesson: The Thomas Jeffersons of the Middle East are out there, but they’re far less organized or determined than the Osama bin Ladens and Sayyid Qutbs. And there just aren’t nearly as many of them. If the United States doesn’t commit to helping the Thom Jeffersons obtain power and then stick around for a very long time to ensure that they keep it, we are consigning the present and future Jeffersons to murder, and consigning the Middle East to jihadist control.