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Monday, May 13, 2013
Recent events in Washington, Moscow and Damascus suggest the U.S. is edging closer to limited intervention in Syria’s civil war. Israel’s bombing of facilities near Damascus, Secretary of State John Kerry’s talks with President Putin in Moscow and President Obama’s statement about Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons raise new options for U.S. action.
Yet, the question remains: Why should the United States get involved in Syria’s civil war? The conventional answer is: America has a responsibility to stop humanitarian outrages that endanger neighboring countries. But the more important question, one not addressed by those urging Obama to use force in Syria, is this: At what cost?
The cost of war in Iraq remains all too clear. The care of thousands of wounded veterans is a reminder that the cost of war is measured not only by the multiple billions spent over eight years to build security in major cities. The potential human toll, both military and civilian, must be weighed.
When Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, told Congress in February 2003 that ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing order in Iraq would require “several hundred thousand troops,” he was chastised by the Pentagon’s political leadership for exaggerating the force’s size. Clearly he was right: There were not enough troops.
For those pressing the president to “show leadership” by arming the rebels and establishing a no-fly zone in parts of Syria, here are five questions for them to answer.
n Should America use force to stop humanitarian outrages wherever they occur, not only in Syria? If so, Congress would need to increase substantially the size of the army and add billions to the defense budget. Although Sen. John McCain says the U.S. could end the Assad regime by enforcing no-fly zones in Syria and bombing military targets, military experience in Iraq showed that troops on the ground would be needed.
n If the U.S. uses force in Syria, should it have U.N. Security Council support? President Bush didn’t have its approval for the invasion of Iraq, or that of key NATO allies. France, Germany and Canada refused to join the invasion. Russia is the key to obtaining U.N. support, and Kerry was in Moscow last week to ascertain what price the Kremlin asks for its consent to a transition government in Damascus.
n Would the United States have Arab support for invading Syria? Most of Syria’s neighbors, especially Jordan and Turkey, support measures to force Assad’s ouster because they are forced to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply arms to rebel forces because they oppose Assad’s close relationship with Iran. But neither neighboring Iraq nor more distant Egypt favors intervention by outside forces.
n Will NATO join a U.S. intervention in Syria? The Pentagon learned during the allied bombing in Libya in 2011 that France, Britain, Italy and other NATO members didn’t have the military sustainability required to conduct extensive air operations to support rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. In Syria, even if NATO approved using force, it’s unlikely that France, Britain and others could provide significant military support to oust Assad and provide enough peace-enforcing troops to provide security. It’s predictable that America would pay most of the costs.
n Will sending U.S. forces against Syria gain the consent of Congress? A recent poll (New York Times/CBS) showed that more than 60 percent of the public opposes involvement in Syria and only 25 percent approves. There is little sentiment in either the Senate or the House for intervention. If Obama decides that U.S. interests require the country to lead a military operation to bring down Assad, Congress will want to debate the costs as well as the benefits of the intervention, and a major debate would ensue. Does Obama want to take a divided country into another Middle East war?
In 2002 and 2003, President George W. Bush exaggerated the WMD threat Saddam Hussein posed to his neighbors in order to persuade Congress that it should support military action. Would Obama exaggerate the threat posed by Syria’s civil war to convince a skeptical public and Congress that America should use force?
New York Times columnist Bill Keller’s recent commentary (May 6), “Syria is not Iraq,” cited some of the differences. But his thoughtful piece ends up predicting an outcome in Syria, if America intervenes, that proved illusory in Iraq 10 years ago.
He asserts: “We make clear to President Assad that if he does not cease his campaign of terror and enter negotiations on a new order, he will pay a heavy price.” Keller predicts that if Assad refuses, “we send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace.”
This is wishful thinking. It’s a strategy that Bush tried with Hussein in 2002, and it didn’t work. His regime didn’t collapse, and Bush was obliged to send in ground troops to do the job. In that respect, Syria would be another Iraq.
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