M.D. Harmon: Obama's Syria intervention is poor policy

Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

“I am not opposed to all wars. I am opposed to dumb wars.”

Barack Obama, in The New Yorker, 2004

“I say until we have someone who knows what they’re doing (about Mideast conflicts in Arabic nations), I say let Allah sort it out.”

Sarah Palin, June 2013

The present question we now are asking ourselves, of course, is whether getting more involved in internal Middle East conflicts than we already are is smart or dumb.

The cases now facing the United States and its president involve the allied nations of Iran and Syria. The latter, a junior ally of the former, is directly involved in a very hot war, one in which casualties total an estimated 93,000 killed, with millions more who have been injured or fled the country as refugees to Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

In Syria, what started out as demonstrations against the brutal rule of Bashar Assad, whose minority Alawite tribal group has run Syria under the discipline of the socialist Ba’ath party (a branch of the same ideology that Saddam Hussein imposed on Iraq), last year exploded into a shooting war.

That conflict initially had the Assad regime on the defensive and losing territory to a mixed bag of rebels, ranging from ordinary Muslim militias to members of a range of Islamist groups. However, support provided by Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in the form of troops and weapons has won back some ground from the rebels, and now Russia has joined in to aid Assad with supplies and munitions. (Russia’s only Mediterranean navy base is in Syria.)

Newly extricated from Iraq and trying hard to pull out of Afghanistan, the Obama administration has been more than reluctant to adopt a new client in Syria, confining itself until recently to “humanitarian aid” (food and medical supplies to fighters and refugees) along with a series of unproductive talks and embargoes that may have had some limited effects, but have distinctively failed to halt the fighting, which has only escalated.

NOW, HOWEVER, WITH the rebels falling back, Obama has made tentative commitments to provide non-Islamist rebel forces (assuming such exist anymore, or have significance in the overall rebel coalition) with “light weapons” and ammunition for them.

With Assad and his allies armed with chemical weapons, tanks, heavy artillery and jet bombers, such aid would seem to be only marginally effective at best, while offering the danger of getting the United States more directly involved (with air superiority and air support operations — intercepting Assad’s jets to establish “no-fly zones” and conducting bombing runs of our own) if, or more likely when, the present course fails to turn the tide.

The danger in giving rebels effective man-portable air defense missiles (called “MANPADS” by the military) is that jihadists can acquire them to shoot down civilian airliners.

BUT IT MAY BE too late; there are credible reports that large numbers of such weapons given by the U.S. to Libyan rebels to fight Muammar Gaddafi were taken from Libya after the fighting ended and have been shipped to Syria already. One account says the reason U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was in Benghazi when he was killed was to try to get them back.

And then there’s the sad fact that the person whom American voters picked to be commander-in-chief at this perilous time in our history (and when has there not been a perilous time in our history?) appears to be totally incapable of handling serious international crises.

Obama’s record of failure in Libya, in Egypt and in Iran is apparent, as is his failure to establish a final “status of forces” agreement with Iraq and the obvious lack of readiness of Afghan forces to defend their own country. He has created immense skepticism both here and abroad about his abilities in this crucial area of executive responsibility.

As Obama’s job approval rating sinks below 45 percent in the polls (a recent survey for the first time showed more people approved of George W. Bush’s term in office than Obama’s), many voices are wondering if The One is up to the job.

ONE CONSERVATIVE VOICE pointing that out is Sarah Palin’s. In a recent speech, she made this trenchant observation: “Militarily, where is our commander-in-chief? We’re talking now more new interventions. I say until we know what we’re doing, until we have a commander-in-chief who knows what he’s doing, well, let these radical Islamic countries who aren’t even respecting basic human rights, where both sides are slaughtering each other as they scream over an arbitrary red line, ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is great), I say until we have someone who knows what they’re doing, I say let Allah sort it out.”

That is to say, if two groups, neither of whom is favorable to western interests or values, want to fight, we should let them do it without picking a side that may or may not be worse for U.S. Interests than its opponents.

True, Americans are a compassionate people, and when they see casualty rates soaring in a given conflict, they want something done to end the slaughter.

And there is a case to be made that when genocide occurs, as happened in Cambodia in the 1970s (2 million civilians dead) and Rwanda in 1990s (more than 500,000 helpless members of the Tutsi tribe hacked to death by rival Hutus), something effective should be done. Direct action would likely garner both U.S. and international backing.

But U.S. opinion isn’t supporting action in this particular case: Polls are showing more than two-thirds of Americans opposing direct intervention in Syria, probably because they don’t expect any better outcomes than we’ve seen with the Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy in Egypt (shutting down the so-called “Arab Spring”) or the debacle in Benghazi after we helped depose Gaddafi.

OTHER PROMINENT VOICES on the right are pointing out the pitfalls, too:

As the Washington Examiner noted in an editorial June 17 headlined, “Obama puts up dukes and blunders into Syria,” the fact that “Obama’s foreign policy has featured a succession of blunders on the big challenges” means that “Going into Syria with weapons, air support, drones or other lethal assistance could involve the U.S. In an uncontrollable escalation, especially now that Hezbollah is prominently involved and Iran is sending troops to rescue Assad.”

Victor Davis Hanson, the prominent military historian and professor, wrote on National Review Online in a June 17 essay headlined, “Intervention in Syria is a very bad idea,” that “Syria is turning out to be a sort of Spanish Civil War of our age, with Hezbollah and Iran playing the role of fascist Italy and Germany, and the Islamic nations and jihadists that of Stalin’s Russia, as the moderates disappear and the messy conflict becomes a proxy for greater powers, with worse to come.”

He continues, “There is no guarantee that American air support or close training might not end up in some sort of American ground presence — the only sure guarantee that moderates might prevail should Assad fall. … Thousands are dying and that is a terrible thing, but how exactly the U.S. could stop the killing is a mystery, as is why the Syrian dead are more important than the greater aggregate humanitarian disaster in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia or Mali.”

Since, he correctly notes, Obama is not either inclined to change Americans’ minds about the wisdom of intervention — or even capable of doing it should he so desire — and “Given that the American people have no great love for most of those killing one another in Syria, we would be wise to stay out, and send food and medicine to alleviate the suffering of the innocent.”

Another note is sounded by analyst Pat Brennan, again on NRO: “The president’s foreign policy seems to be oriented around not letting it get in the way of his domestic and political priorities — more action in Syria will require expending political capital, risking mistakes, angering some of his domestic allies and some of his opponents, too, but there are also costs to inaction that starts to look impotent (and letting Assad gain the upper hand again). So the administration tries to make it look like they’re doing something, without doing anything.”

IS THERE A POLICY that can be broadly applied in such circumstances that can address real American concerns about terrorism? Conrad Black, the former Canadian media baron, thinks there is.

He said in an NRO column June 18 that the West and its allies should “agree on the principle that terrorism-supporting states will be quarantined, outrages traceable to individual countries will lead to swift retribution against those countries, and it will not, other than in exceptional and unforeseen circumstances, be the business of the West and its allies to be concerned with what nature of regime may follow those discommoded by our retaliation in response to terrorist provocations. It should be completely irrelevant to our calculations whether a designated terrorist regime will be succeeded by an even more odious one … it doesn’t matter.”

So we should not worry about how Mideast nations are governed, we should worry instead about how their outlook affects us. Black quoted federal judge William Young, who in his sentencing of attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid, said, “We do not negotiate with terrorists, meet with terrorists (or) sign documents with terrorists. We hunt them down.”

In that context, we should note that the Taliban this week announced that it has opened an “office” in Qatar, and the Obama administration has already said it will commence negotiations with its representatives there soon.

AND FOR A FINAL NOTE, consider what will happen to all of the above considerations once Iran acquires the ability to build nuclear warheads.

That is, if it hasn’t done so already. How will the Obama administration meet that challenge?

We may not want to know, or we may think we know already, but as Conrad Black said above, “It doesn’t matter” — because, like it or not, we will most certainly find out what Obama and his crew will do — and more likely sooner than later.

Will it be smart, or dumb? The odds are on the latter.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com


  1. Palin: “I say let Allah sort it out.” Absolutely. The U.S. can affect the outcomes of the struggles in these countries but it cannot control them. The majorities in these countries will not look upon us benevolently until we ban bikinis, persecute homosexuals, and deny drivers licenses to women. They love diversity about as well as they love pork rolls.


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