Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq and Libya have taught most of our current leaders in Washington, D.C. absolutely no lessons.  Those are wars of the past, and we must forge ahead into the future.  In that future, there is the apparent inevitability of U.S. war in Syria.

The story is familiar by now: more than two years ago the arrest of 15 teenage boys for spray painting anti-government messages in the southern town of Daraa erupted into anti-government protests, which have consumed the nation, spreading to the capital, Damascus, and most urban centers in the country.  According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights the number of casualties, from all sides, since the beginning of the uprising exceeds 110,000.

Throughout the fighting some in government have called for intervention.  Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been beating the drum for more than a year-and-a-half.  Until recently they were mostly alone.  On August 21st Syria crossed the “red line” set by President Obama exactly a year before when chemical weapons were used in a Damascus suburb.

The U.S. president set the rules. They were violated; now action must be taken.

It is tragically heartbreaking that women and children are dying at the barrel of a weapon or the blast of an explosion; however, that does not make our intervention absolutely necessary.  If so, we would be obligated to intervene in the internal politics of more countries than Syria.  We would be required to intervene in multiple American cities where many young men are killed.  Intervention could occur in Chicago, where the odds of being murdered is 1 in 6250; or New Orleans, where the odds are 1 in 1750.

Before we rush into another war, no matter how “limited,” we need to be certain of at least a few things.  We ought to know who are our enemies and our allies; our desired end state; and whether or not we can effect the situation in that it enables the achievement our aforementioned end state.

That choice is tough when it is between a dictator (who himself is the son of a dictator with ties to Iran and Hezbollah) or a wide assortment of rebels, some with ties to, or at the very least who fight alongside, Al Qaeda or subscribe to various Islamofacist philosophies.  In this instance, the enemy of my enemy is NOT my friend.

Some will argue that some of the rebels are moderates and tolerant of the west and would not persecute the various minorities of Syria.  The same can be said of Assad, who controlled a secular Ba’athist government that respected the diversity of Syria’s population.

If we were to only support the moderate rebels, whether through advisors, arms, combat, logistical support, or in any other way, unless we are willing to enter a full scale war the moderates who started the revolution for the pursuit of freedom will be quickly out gunned, out matched, and overrun by the extremist they are willing to work with today.  A moderate has limits, actions they are not willing to conduct.  Extremists do not.  A moderate exercises reason, and can enter into dialogue.  Extremists do not.  How can one reason with someone who is willing to eat a recently killed Soldiers heart and liver to make a political statement?  If the rebels were to wrestle control of the Syrian government from Assad the power struggle would be between the moderate rebels and the extremists.  It does not require a long stretch of the imagination to understand what the extremists would do to gain absolute power.  They’re already doing it.

When I was in Syria in 2007, I spoke to many people who talked about how the younger Assad allowed cell phones, the Internet, and satellite television; all of which had been banned before he assumed office.  He had moved to modernize the economy by privatizing banks, universities and other industries that had been public under the Ba’athist socialist economic policy.  He is no Jeffersonian or Madisonian, but he is also not an uncompromising Islamist.  He was pragmatic in a place where geopolitics is a game not to be played by amateurs.  This is no argument that Assad is a good guy, but that he had taken strides that his father would have never allowed.

Military missions cannot proceed without knowing the commanders’ intent.  What is our desired end state?  What has been put on the table before the American public are limited strikes designed to degrade the Assad regime’s capabilities.  The threshold:  “leave the regime weaker after any assault.”  However, it won’t be in support of the rebels.  What does that mean?   Who would it support?  What would it accomplish?  Assad, who is the declared antagonist, would remain in power and if it appeared to slip away he would likely be willing to do whatever necessary to maintain power or make the obtaining of power by the rebels and their allies as painful as possible.  He has already proven his willingness to do evil, so what restraints would remain if he felt he was dead already?

We do not have a clear and achievable end state, and even if we did it is not likely we can bring about a situation favorable to us.  We will not bring about a better political solution in Syria.  Only the Syrians can do that.

Most importantly, before we commit U.S. lives to a foreign civil war we should know what we have at stake in that war.  It is clear that, at the moment, we have nothing at stake.  The Syrian civil war does not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland, nor any of our interests in the region.  Syria has long been a nation we have had a tenuous relationship with.  Syrian possession of chemical weapons is not a new phenomenon.  We have no associations with major Syrian industries.  We have no tangible stock in Syria’s success or failure as a nation.

Our biggest interest is Israel’s continued existence, and while Assad is not friendly to Israel, he has been rational and predictable.  The Assads have supported and aided Iran and Hezbollah, but have not directly attacked Israel since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  He and his father demanded the return of the Golan Heights, but only beat that drum loudly when the internal politics of the nation were becoming more difficult for them.  What would the Morsi-esque Islamist rebels stance on Israel be?  If Egypt is any indicator, not likely friendly.  Would they be rational and predictable?  Probably not.  Regardless, Israel has reaffirmed that it hold the ability to defend itself, and it has proven itself willing and able to do so in the past.

Some will argue that American inaction would be detrimental to America’s leadership role on the world stage, and that we would be viewed as weak.  They fail to realize that not involving ourselves with the mess in Syria is not a retreat or a capitulation to Islamists.  How can we retreat from or surrender to a threat not posed to us?  Syria of 2013 is not the Soviet Union of 1964.

As a world leader, we need to pick our fights. Conserve our energy, if you will.  As world leaders we need to remain world leaders, and we will lose face if we conduct a mealy-mouthed strike and then wash our hands of the issue.  We, and possibly other regional powers, will be drawn into a protracted war if we do what would be really necessary to achieve the goals the hawks and chicken hawks alike are hinting at: regime change and nation building.

As a world leader we need to have the money to be a leader, and even though the government seems more than willing to write open-ended checks, we, the payers of those checks, should not be so compliant.

Any war in Syria will put the U.S., and most importantly, America’s fighting men, into a situation where winning is impossible.  We are not going to fix Syria’s internal dysfunction they have been fighting for almost two-and-a-half years.  We owe it to the men who will be sent into harms way to have thoroughly examined the situation, evaluate the human terrain, determine if we have any real allies among the competing groups, have clear and achievable goals, and use the sufficient amount of force needed to achieve success in a timely manner and then withdraw.

Otherwise, we lose.


Kenneth Depew | University of St. Thomas (TX) | @DepewK