Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., took to the Sunday talk shows to urge U.S. intervention on behalf of the rebels fighting to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That they disagree about tactics is less meaningful than the fact that their premise is wrong. The United States has no reason to rush to get involved in Syria’s civil war.
Graham and McCain differed as to whether the United States should put “boots on the ground” and actually invade Syria. Prodded by reports that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, Graham said, “Absolutely.”
McCain said “no.” Fearing it would turn Syrian public opinion against us, he called an invasion “the worst thing the United States could do right now.” Instead, McCain wants to arm the rebels and use air power to attack Assad’s forces.
McCain is right about not invading. Few Americans want to see U.S. troops in another war, particularly in a Muslim country at the heart of the Arab world.
But the insistence to intervene presumes a series of understandings not in evidence. For starters, what outcome would the U.S. want to see? How would that be achieved? And, probably most immediate: Which rebels would we arm or defend – and is Assad really more of a threat to the U.S. than his opposition?
Syria is, as columnist George Will has written, “an opaque and uncontrollable conflict.” The Assad regime is tyrannical and brutal. Most sources cite the death toll in this conflict as around 70,000, including many civilians.
But there is no reason to think the rebels are blameless. Syria is a collection of religious factions and often-warring tribes carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by European colonial powers after World War I. To speak of the rebels as if they are a unified group bent on liberal democracy is ridiculous.
To a large extent, we do not know exactly who they are or what they want – except that, as the New York Times has reported, “jihadis linked to al-Qaida have become the dominant fighting force.” Are those the guys we want to arm? Or is it more likely that a surface-to-air missile in their hands might come back at us?
There are other considerations, as well, and other uncertainties. Tuesday, President Barack Obama said there is evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. But, he said, the U.S. does not know “how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”
Perhaps. Then again, the president may just have been trying to get out of the corner he painted himself into with his “red line” and “game changer” remarks about chemical weapons. He did better later, saying he would not be “rushing to judgment” without better information.
And some of that might include intelligence about what is truly a threat and to whom. On Monday, an Israeli “senior official” told the Jerusalem Post that Israel has “clear evidence” that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons against the rebels. But he also said Israel should be “more concerned about the possibility of the chemical weapons leaking to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups in Lebanon.”
In December, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl outlined a series of possible scenarios Syria could follow. They ranged from a long, drawn-out fight that left Assad in control of nothing more than his tribal homeland along Syria’s coast to a quick collapse and a Libya-like collapse resulting in a multitude of militias and a weak government. Perhaps worst would be a free-for-all between all factions, another Somalia.
Facing that uncertainty, the president is right to hold off. The mess in Syria is neither America’s fault nor its responsibility. And until it becomes much clearer where things are headed, what U.S. interests are threatened, and what can be done about it, the president should be in no rush to make it our problem.