May 7, 2013

The reported use of chemical weapons by Syria’s embattled Assad regime has not made much difference in that devastated country. Tens of thousands have been killed in brutal fighting already, and the heart-rending violence continues with no end in sight.

The chemical weapons reports have had a dramatic effect in the United States, if not in Syria. The president had warned that their use would be a “gamechanger,” with “enormous consequences,” a proverbial “red line” that cannot be crossed. Immediately, the neoconservative hawks who helped drive us into Iraq — William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor and more — started pounding the war drums once more.

Alarmingly, liberal humanitarian interventionists also have begun talking up military intervention. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former head of policy planning in the State Department under President Obama, led the charge in a bellicose op-edin The Post, comparing the reports of chemical weapons use to genocide in Rwanda. There, she said, America had been shamed by the Clinton administration’s demand for “more conclusive evidence” of genocide. Now, she argued, Obama was repeating the dodge by seeking proof about what actually took place in Syria.

“U.S. credibility is on the line,” concluded Slaughter. The president must understand the “tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act.”

Slaughter shows neither the slightest awareness of the “distrust, cynicism and hatred” that will be generated if the dying Syrian civilians are victims of U.S. bombs or of the deep divide within the Muslim world over the civil war there. She seems unconcerned at the lack of any good choices in the Syrian debacle, or at the absence of any legal justification for the United States to intervene.

Obama has thus far stood up to such howls, and displayed a sensible caution that others would do well to emulate. It is time for everyone — even the righteous — to sober up about Syria. Given the terrible costs we have suffered from U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and given the complexities of the sectarian conflict now taking place in Syria, the president is surely right to avoid any rush into another war in the Middle East.

The lessons of those previous wars are particularly relevant here. Syria has, as Syria specialistJoshua Landis has argued, many parallels to Iraq. It is a nation rife with religious, sectarian and class divisions. A minority — Shiite in Syria — in alliance with urban Sunnis, Christians and other minorities, has used a dictatorship to rule over the Sunni majority. The uprising has quickly turned sectarian — in part because of the outside influences of Turkey and the Gulf monarchies who seek to weaken the Iranian-Shiite alliance.

Despite U.S. efforts to cobble together a united and more secular opposition, the rebels are divided, with Islamists — many espousing open allegiance to al-Qaeda — providing the fiercest fighters. The violence will not end when the brutal regime falls. Already chaos, criminality, local militias and warlords beset “liberated”areas.

As in Iraq, any intervention will necessarily involve nation-building in the midst of trying to disarm competing militias, many of them openly anti-American. But after war, years of occupation, many lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq, we have not been able to create a stable regime, power sharing or an end to the political violence. And no one, not even the neocons, has the appetite to try that again.

Arming the rebels with heavier weapons, backed by U.S. air power, also offers no answer. Syria is already awash with arms, and more sophisticated weaponry provided to so-called moderates can easily end up in the hands of the anti-American factions. To control the skies, the United States would have to take out radars, anti-aircraft sites and air bases, in the face of Russian, Chinese and Iranian objections.

Nor does the United States have any legal basis for waging war on Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not pose a terrorist or national security threat to the United States, nor a threat to international security. There is no United Nations resolution that can be stretched to provide even a transparent cover for intervention, as there was in Libya.

Fortunately, the American people don’t share the lust for war. Tired of wasting lives and resources on misadventure abroad, most Americans oppose even sending arms and supplies to the rebels in Syria. That is also true of public opinion among our European allies.

The horrors in Syria can’t simply be ignored, however. Rather than escalating our military involvement, Obama should redouble our humanitarian efforts both for the growing numbers of displaced refugees, and for those starving inside of Syria. He can seek to reengage the Russian and Chinese — and through them the Iranians — to restrain Assad. He can reengage the U.N. Security Council and press it to take multilateral action, and use our influence with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to check escalating support for the divided rebels. And he can seek to restrain Israel from provoking a regional war with Hezbollah. The president should be seeking to reduce the violence, not arm and escalate it.

The last thing the president should do is commit the United States militarily to the overthrow of the regime. As in Iraq, we can win that war, but we will surely lose in its violent aftermath — and we will bear responsibility for deepening the humanitarian disaster with our “humanitarian” intervention.

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