At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime — specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.
Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.
Further complicating matters, Syria’s air defenses are Russian-made and may be manned by Russian personnel. Is Syria’s al Qaeda-led rebellion really worth shooting at Russians for? Iranians maybe, Hizballah certainly, but Russians?
It’s evident that the Pentagon put this discussion on the record to get its take on the public record. That take is, directly intervening in Syria militarily is a bad, bad idea. Jeffrey Goldberg’s story gives us a bit more of that take:
There are those in the Pentagon who think that the State Department has romanticized the Syrian opposition. What diplomats see as a civil war featuring bands of poorly armed moderates struggling to free themselves from the grip of an evil dictator, the generals see as a religious war between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Why would the U.S. risk taking sides in a battle between two loathed terror organizations? Memories of Iraq, too, are fresh in the minds of Dempsey and his colleagues.
Syria is not Iraq. It’s probably worse. When the Iraq war began there was still this idea that if we freed millions of Muslims from their secular dictators, they would naturally choose democracy and freedom. Millions of Muslims have unfortunately proven this idea wrong time after time. There has yet to be an example of a Muslim state throwing off a secular dictator and then remaining truly secular. The Iraqis wrote sharia into their constitution and have become a little too cozy with Iran. Egyptians overthrew Mubarak only to vote in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Afghanistan remains a basket case in which an Islamist takeover is likely once Obama removes the last American troops. The best we seem to be able to hope for is Turkey, which has become an Islamist state that is not quite as radical as Iran. Or Libya, a failed state that has become a transit point for arms going into Syria to power the Islamist rebellion there.
Intervening in Syria is a bad, bad idea for a number of reasons, not least of which is that US interests are not directly at stake and our current leadership consistently avoids discussing the jihad that is leading the rebellion now. There are no truly good US options with respect to Syria, but there are a lot of bad ones. Direct US military intervention may be the worst. Americans would be siding with al Qaeda, and “victory” might hand our worst enemies a new country and base of operations to use against us, Israel and Europe. But a desperate and scandal-plagued president may decide to intervene for any number of bad reasons. Bill Clinton did end up intervening in the Balkans, and hey, we “won” that war too.
h/t Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt