April 7, 2020

Deeper Into The Quicksand

By Stephen Tuttle | April 15, 2017

Already sick from the dirt diet that is the Middle East, we've decided to add Syria to the menu. We should be asking why. 

Syria became an independent state and an original member of the United Nations in 1945. Things deteriorated after that.

Regular coups bedeviled the country until a nationalist socialist political party called the Ba'athists took over in 1963. They almost immediately declared emergency law, virtually undoing their young constitution.

In 1970, Hafez al-Assad took power and reigned for 30 years through oppression, violent secret police, state-sanctioned murder and the end to any shred of what we'd call civil rights. His virulent anti-Israeli views and alliance with the old Soviet Union were added complications. 

Upon his death in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, took over the family dictator business and tried to out-butcher his father, adding chemical weapons to the arsenal he casually used against his own people.

When the so-called Arab Spring broke out in 2011, rebellion started in Syria, too. Assad responded with bestial aggression. The United Nations estimates the death toll at 400,000, most of them civilian non-combatants. 

Then things got a lot more complicated. There are now dozens of players.

One side has the Syrian government and most of their military, the terrorist group Hezbollah, Iran, a dozen or so factions and militia groups and lately their Russian pals (Syria is Russia's largest arms customer).

The rebel side has the Free Syrian Army, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a jihadist group called al-Nusra Front that mostly cooperates with rebels, and Turkey. Then there's an eight-nation NATO coalition, led by us, fighting ISIS, which is fighting everybody.

We have tacitly supported the anti-Assad coalition, and actively bombed ISIS positions in coordination with Russia. The Syrian government, Russia and Hezbollah are fighting the rebels we support but are on our side fighting ISIS.

This is the quicksand into which we now wade ever deeper.

We rained $70 million worth of missiles down on a Syrian airfield we allege was used to launch a gas attack on Syrian civilians. Fans of the adventure said a line had been crossed when Assad again used chemical weapons. Within hours the Syrians had launched another bombing foray, from the very airfield we had just attacked, on civilians in the same town they had earlier gassed. If we were trying to send a message, it wasn't heard by the Assad government.

(As an aside, the discussion of the appropriate and moral method of killing people is patently absurd. Bombs and gas both kill indiscriminately. Being blown to smithereens or gassed matters little to those on the receiving end who are equally dead. Apparently rank ordering wartime killing is the best we've been able to come up with after 10,000 or so years of what we call civilization.)

What are we doing?

Even our new secretary of state and new ambassador to the United Nations can't seem to agree on our primary purpose. President Trump gets to prove what a manly man he is and Vladimir Putin has to respond in kind to prove he isn't just another pipsqueak despot. Whoopee. 

Nobody is willing or able to articulate why this is in our national interest or exactly what our national interest in Syria actually is. If there's a legitimate reason for us to expand our war footprint to include Syria, somebody should tell us.

An even better question is what would we consider victory in Syria? If Assad is deposed, he will be replaced by anarchy, an even more fertile breeding ground for more violent jihadists. We've already seen this play out in Libya and Iraq. If we run ISIS out of the country, that makes it easier for Assad to continue his ruthless pursuit of Syrian rebels we support.

If ISIS is crushed and Assad removed, then what? That surely will not please either Russia or Iran. How long do we plan on being engaged in a third front in the Middle East? Our promised quick victories in Afghanistan and Iraq have become 16- and 14-year war nightmares, the longest in our history.

Syria's civil war poses no direct security or geopolitical threat to the United States. A deeper involvement wastes more treasure, risks more American blood, puts us on a dangerous collision course with the Russians and furthers no American cause or objective yet stated.

We should be able to maintain our position in the world without furthering the carnage already underway in Syria. 

In the meantime, we're sending a naval battle group led by an aircraft carrier to cruise off the Korean Peninsula. North Korean megalomaniac Kim Jong-un has been running his mouth and testing missiles, so we have to teach him a lesson, too.

Already involved in wars without end, we're looking for more. It is obscene. 

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