Syria intervention isn’t a slam dunk

Walter Pincus
Reporter May 30, 2012

Syria is not a video game. Americans need to understand that.

President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, fighting to stay in power, are using increasingly brutal force against their own people. It is becoming a civil war, with both political and religious elements complicating the picture.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Syrians are killing each other, military and civilian, children as well as the aged. It is uncomfortable to watch.

But like it or not, here in the United States, President Obama cannot push a button, end the slaughter and bring peace.

A group of Americans has been pressing for U.S. military involvement. They start with the supplying of arms to the Assad opposition with the implied promise that there would be additional support, starting with the application of air power.

While the Obama administration has remained focused on trying to reach a diplomatic solution with the aid of the United Nations and other countries, the president’s critics, some for political reasons, have called for tougher measures.

Almost three months ago, a familiar trio began banging the drum for more aggressive action. On March 6, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) called on Obama to supply the opposition with arms and “help organize an international effort to protect civilian population centers in Syria through air strikes on Assad’s forces.”

In the wake of last weekend’s news of the massacre of 100 Syrian adults and children in the village of Houla, Mitt Romney on Monday issued a statement that accused the president of a “lack of leadership” and urged “more assertive measures to end the Assad regime.” Romney called for the United States to “work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves.” The Republican presidential challenger did not go as far as McCain, Graham and Lieberman and call for airstrikes. But he did not spell out how he would “arm the opposition” or say whether his “more assertive measures” included providing air support.

Meanwhile the media this week have regularly pressed government officials on whether preparations are underway for the United States to adopt the military option in Syria.

On Monday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS News that “diplomatic pressure should always precede any discussions about military options.”

He added: “We will be prepared to provide [military] options if asked to do so.”

Asked, “Will anything short of military action make a real impact there,” meaning Syria, his answer was, “that’s always a question.”

The next day Dempsey’s remarks became a focus of Pentagon reporters’ questions to George Little, spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

Little said: “When it comes to military options, again, the focus remains on the diplomatic and economic track. But at the end of the day, we in the Department of Defense have a responsibility to look at the full spectrum of options and to make them available if they’re requested.”

Given the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is no surprise that there has not been a call for U.S. troops on the ground.

The United States has been at war for more than 10 years, and Americans appear to be overwhelmingly ready to get out of Afghanistan. So the eagerness on the part of some to get into another war situation is puzzling. Perhaps that eagerness is rooted in the fact that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has had a direct involvement in all the fighting, and the public has not been taxed to pay for those wars.

Ironically, in their March 6 statement, McCain, Graham and Lieberman outlined important problems with greater U.S. intervention.

“There are legitimate questions about the efficacy of intervention in Syria, and equally legitimate concerns about its risks and uncertainties,” they wrote.

Before airstrikes can be launched, they said, “to protect civilian population centers from Assad’s killing machine will first require the United States and our partners to suppress the Syrian regime’s air defenses in at least part of the country.”

Such attacks would inevitably involve civilian casualties. How quickly people disregard such issues, which have caused so much agony in Afghanistan, Pakistan and more recently Yemen, where U.S. unmanned aircraft are much more precise in their targeting capabilities.

While proponents talk in general of providing “military assistance,” the senators recognize that would include “weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies.”

It would also require people on the ground.

Military intervention involving the United States would also insert Americans into a partially sectarian conflict. (Think Iraq, where U.S. inervention met with resistance from both Sunni and Shiite radicals.) This is “a serious and legitimate concern,” the senators said, but they concluded “the risks of sectarian conflict will exist in Syria whether we get more involved or not.”

The benefit of intervention, according to McCain, Graham and Lieberman, would be that it would allow “us to better empower those Syrian groups that share our interests — those groups that reject al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime, and commit to the goal of an inclusive democratic transition. . . . If we stand on the sidelines, others will try to pick winners, and this will not always be to our liking or in our interest.”

Will U.S. intervention turn out that way in Iraq and Afghanistan?

There is one thing the Senate trio got right about intervention in Syria: “Are there dangers and risks and uncertainties in this approach? Absolutely. There are no ideal options in Syria.”

The country should think seriously about this step, and Congress should debate it. You could say the same thing about Yemen, Somalia and even Iran.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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