Like every other college-educated urban white person, I love The Onion. Its satire sometimes feels like everything that's left of the guiding light of civilization.
Yet recently I’ve noticed stories on the Syrian civil war that very much embody the thoughtless ways Americans have come to look at foreign policy, especially the sticky club of liberal interventionists. Sure, you can count on Lindsay Graham and John McCain to want to get involved in whatever Middle Eastern wars might be lying around, but The Onion captures liberal interventionist sentiment well.
“‘Syrian Lives Are Worthless,’ Obama Tells Daughters Before Kissing Them Goodnight” hit a rare note of not only being obvious and unfunny but also daft about what a Syrian intervention would mean. You could imagine a Fox News-financed conservative satirical newsletter trying to make the same joke in 2003: “‘Iraqi Lives Are Worthless,’ Liberals Tell Children Before Kissing Them Goodnight."
As on so many other matters, we imbue the president with a power not at all commensurate with his ability to influence events in the world. Also, we drastically overestimate the abilities of the military in these scenarios. When it comes to Syria this is especially dangerous because as the violence ramps up the drumbeat for Obama to “do something” gets louder.
In February 2012, I wrote a column asking if intervention in Syria was inevitable. Now that the situation has deteriorated from awful to catastrophe with tens of thousands killed, hundreds of thousands of refugees flowing across the borders, and the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, it has become more inevitable and yet worse to contemplate. All the reasons the administration wanted to stay out of Syria have only become more acute even as the pressure to intervene has increased.
Military action has nothing but downsides and unintended consequences. Critics say, put up a no-fly zone, but Syria’s air defenses were built to repel the Israeli military. In other words, they are for real. Creating a no-fly zone would mean dismantling, i.e., bombing, much of this network. It would almost certainly kill civilians, perhaps a large number of them, and it would put our own servicemembers at risk. Furthermore, the Syrian military can keep up the campaign on the ground anyway, and as the killing continues there will be increased pressure to strike targets on the ground. Essentially, a no-fly zone would mean starting a hot war with Syria.
Critics say, take out the chemical weapons, but you can’t just bomb chemical weapons facilities in populated areas without, again, killing civilians and potentially releasing the chemical agents. The Pentagon says it could take as many as 50,000 troops to fight there way in and secure the sites. Again, call that what it is: starting a hot war with Syria.
So critics say, arm the rebels. But some of the rebels are almost scarier than the Assad regime. The most powerful rebel group is called Al Nusra, and it’s leaders were former lieutenants to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Basically Al Qaeda in Iraq moved across the Syrian border at the beginning of the war and gave itself a Syrian makeover (this includes changing their names to sound more Syrian). These are the people who five years ago were drilling holes in captives and cutting off their heads.
What happens if American-delivered arms end up on the wrong side of a massacre against the ruling Allawite minority? What if anti-aircraft missiles that the Saudis and McCain are eager to supply end up bringing down El Al jets, as one member of the administration speculated to the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins?
Filkins, the great war correspondent, brings up all of this and more in a recent article, but you’d need a seven volume book series to get to the heart of how messy this is. When the Assad regime falls, whether America has intervened or not, there will likely be a bloodbath in Damascus as the various groups vie for control. Syria has so many different ethnic factions and rebel groups at this point, no one knows who or what could come out of this after the fall of Assad, but it will almost surely include more civil war. The slaughter will continue, and we’ll have to pick a horse and keep arming that horse even as it goes about killing a lot of other horses. This is Iraq, but more complicated. Like Saddam Hussein, Assad’s authoritarian rule was the nail holding the whole house together. Remove the nail, and the entire edifice implodes. It's entirely possible that what comes after Assad falls will be worse than this.
My only point being—other than this is all pretty f***ed up—that it’s all well and good to feel like we, the U.S., should do something, but if it’s an empty gesture meant to appease guilty consciences rather than anything resembling a concrete plan to stabilize Syria (and that might potentially destabilize it further), maybe it’s better to bear the wrath of Lindsay Graham and The Onion after all.