Until a few days ago, President Barack Obama appeared to be inexorably propelling the United States to war in Syria. Despite his promises that a U.S. strike on Syria would be limited in force, short-term in length and narrow in focus, the president has still not shown the public that there is anything close to a compelling reason to become further involved in the Syrian civil war. Plain and simple, U.S. military involvement in Syria is the wrong move.
Indeed, facts, figures and the future point in the opposite direction.
Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, is a ruthless dictator who has murdered tens of thousands of his own people. No one denies that (other than him and maybe Putin). But he’s also been a stabilizing force in a chaotic region. Under Assad, Syria has abstained from open conflict with its neighbors.
Perhaps most significantly, relations between Israel and Syria have remained in a state of cold peace; the Golan Heights, a potential source of regional conflagration, has stayed pretty quiet. Of course Assad’s motivations are selfish — he knows war with his neighbors would undermine his power — but even after Israel thrice attacked Syria over the past few years, Assad withheld from retaliating.
The opposition, on the other hand, is a murky and increasingly ominous force. From the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), both of which fly al-Qaida’s flag, to the Free Syrian Army, a nominally secular umbrella organization increasingly riddled with fundamentalists, those fighting Assad are comprised in large part by foreign jihadist fighters and extremists and appear to be heading further in that direction. Foreign Policy Magazine estimates that up to 34 percent of the opposition forces are explicitly allied with al-Qaida.
It’s not hard to see how allying with a force containing virulently anti-West factions could come back to haunt us, our allies and interests. Assad currently stands as a counterbalance; ensuring his ouster will throw the scales into unpredictable disarray. Further, if Assad is toppled, these fighters will bring their experience to bear against other targets: Israel, Saudi Arabia and U.S. bases across the region.
There are two things true virtually across the board for these rebels: They fight for the global jihadist cause, and their violence will only spread. These are the forces an American bombing campaign would empower.
There’s another, more worrying facet of the ripple effect. Russia’s plan to take away Assad’s chemical weapons has virtually no chance of succeeding. Even this plan would require U.S. boots on the ground in Syria — a prospect which is antithetical to our interests.
There’s a reason Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry paid very qualified diplomatic homage to the Russia plan: They can’t shoot it down outright, but know Russia is floating it only to forestall a U.S. strike on Syria.
So, those weapons are likely to remain in Syria. And if Assad falls — which, given the United States’ commitment, seems likely at some point—guess who will get those weapons? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. Sure, it could be some moderate faction of the rebels. It could also just as easily be al-Qaida.
No matter what happens, a few things seem certain. Al-Qaida and its allies will be emboldened by the United States’ tacit temporary alliance with them. Whoever takes power will be virulently anti-West — even should Assad stay in power, the United States’ position on him is likely to taint his foreign policy, and the U.S. will have to answer, to some degree, for the mess it’s made.
U.S. involvement in Syria will be a mess whose cleanup will take generations, not days. And the more we’re drawn into the conflict, the more profound and long-lasting will be the consequences of our actions.