The nasty, 2-year-old civil war in Syria has taken 93,000 lives, according to the Associated Press. Once expected to quickly oust President Bashar Assad, the war now seems likely to partition the country and, according to a U.S. intelligence official, last for years.
Some in Washington believe the U.S. can help by intervening, primarily with air power.
But aerial weaponry isn’t a useful tool when factions are mingled inside a fluid and fast-changing population. Some supporters of the rebellion are working at office jobs in Damascus. Some Assad loyalists are scattered among those living in areas dominated by the dissidents.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants U.S. military intervention to bolster moderate elements among the anti-Assad rebels.
Norman Polmar, a Washington analyst, wants to create a no-fly zone by threatening Syrian airfields with ship-launched cruise missiles and by attacking Syrian surface-to-air missile sites if necessary. Polmar said in a July 24 phone interview that this kind of intervention would save lives.
McCain and Polmar are experts on warfare. Many in Washington share their hawkish stance.
They’re all wrong.
The Washington hawks are inflating the utility of air and naval forces and underestimating risks and costs. American interests, including the U.S. image on the streets of the world, would be well served by staying out of this mess. This war is an unspeakable horror for those killed, injured or transformed into refugees, but the U.S. didn’t cause it, has little prospect of influencing it, and is unlikely to benefit no matter what its outcome.
I’m a retired American diplomat. In the State Department, I often sat in on policy meetings when a crisis erupted in a world trouble spot.
When war loomed, experts from the Pentagon invariably called for restraint. Higher-ups in the State Department, who were less likely to understand military issues, almost always demanded air strikes.
McCain butted heads over Syria with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McCain threatened to put a hold in Dempsey’s nomination for a second, two-year stint as chairman but backed off after Dempsey sent a letter to Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, outlining the estimated costs of possible military options.
Evoking mistakes made in Iraq that included underestimating costs, Dempsey warned bluntly that each option — ranging from arming rebels to using special operations forces to secure Assad’s chemical weapons sites — would be risky and expensive. Several of the options he cited would cost the U.S. $1 billion per month, and the use of force would be “no less than an act of war,” Dempsey cautioned.
Sources say that Dempsey is under pressure from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to discourage U.S. intervention.
That’s not a bad thing. Washington shouldn’t be beating the war drums quite so loudly.
Technology, aircraft, missiles and drones are not the solution to a war that needs to be resolved via negotiations.
We can’t benefit in Syria from using air power. We shouldn’t try.