Monday, April 29, 2013

Syrian dilemmas

The apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria raises tough issues for U.S. policymakers.

The President is in a box because he earlier declared use of such weapons as a "red line" and "game changer."  He's trying to delay things by seeking more definitive proof of what, where, and why. That's reasonable, especially if we want the international community to join with America in any retaliatory action.

The most obvious actions would be to destroy Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons, or seize them. The first approach is unacceptable because it could likely spread chemical poisons and kill civilians. The second option would require a massive invasion, with numerous unintended and long term consequences, and it still might not work. Even John McCain says he doesn't want U.S. "boots on the ground" in Syria.

Somehow we have to separate the chemical weapons issue from the broader questions about intervention in the Syrian conflict. We shouldn't let the tail wag the dog.

It's notable that the Israelis are not pushing the United States to intervene significantly in Syria. Their ambassador to Washington is even cautious about arming anti-Assad forces. insisting that they be very carefully vetted. On the other hand, the Israelis don't American hesitation to embolden Iranian leaders to pursue their nuclear programs.

McCain and others favor a "no fly zone" over Syria, which sounds easy in theory but in practice would likely require massive attacks to destroy Syrian air defenses, which are quite formidable.

Arming rebel forces risks helping groups with anti-American terrorist connections.

All these steps are high risk, with great uncertainty over whether they will work or even help.

The other day, I heard an experienced Middle East hand invoke what he called "a technical term in policy analysis." Syria, he said, was "a mess."

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