What Can We Do About Syria? Reader Suggestions

"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."

Yesterday I said that if I had a vote on the Syria resolution, I would (on current knowledge) vote No. The reason is that the Administration has convinced everyone that atrocities are underway in Syria, but it has barely begun to explain how the airstrikes and other measures it requested would address the problems it described. Here is another analysis, from the longtime defense analyst Robbin Laird, stressing this same mismatch between the problem we want to solve and the tools we have to use:

The most important consideration is that military operations simply do not work the way the President has characterized his intended plan. The enemy gets a vote. One is always dealing with a reactive enemy, and in this case you are giving him a long warning time to get ready to act in ways, which will defeat the meaning and effect of any strike.... 

One thing the Administration should learn from Libya is that an operation done in one period of Libyan history for a few months is not the story....  The broader picture in the Middle East is really the most telling aspect of determining how limited a strike can be: is throwing cruise missiles or air strikes into the current situation a limited act or is it like throwing matches into a tinder box?

But in the item yesterday I said that if anyone had heard a specific "Here's our plan, and here is why it will work" presentation, I would like to know about it. Several readers responded about possibly effective plans. First, about targeting:

1) While I'm against military intervention, the best case I've heard for a meaningful intervention would be to attack the roads and bridges connecting to the chemical weapons plants and depots.  We can't attack the plants and depots directly for fear of dispersing the weapons, but if we attacked the infrastructure, we could (theoretically) prevent the weapons from being accessed by Assad -- or anyone else.

As you can imagine, there are questions around this idea: how long would it take Assad to repair the damage? Do these roads connect to other things like hospitals or food sources that innocents will need?  Will there still be blowback from these attacks?  Etc.  But if I'm going to be convinced that military intervention is wise, this is the most convincing case.

2) Many people have made the argument of action vs. inaction.  I haven't heard the case made in this particular, concrete way: The Axis of Evil.  

Around ten years ago, we were told that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were looming threats due to WMD -- not entirely unlike the current case against Syria.  We took major military action in one case; for the other two, we did not.  While nobody is thrilled with the current situation in Iran and North Korea, surely the outcomes of the strategies we've employed towards those nations have been preferable to the war we waged in Iraq.  

Of course Syria is not Iraq, is not Iran, is not North Korea.  But when interventionists speak of the dangers of inaction, we should ask them to explain how we can look at recent history and conclude that military action is preferable.

(They might respond that every situation is different and requires a tailored policy.  This is true!  And it also explains why "punishing" Assad for use of chemical weapons is unlikely to dissuade anyone else from using them.  If, let's say, North Korea used sarin on domestic dissenters, would we respond militarily?  Of course we wouldn't, and they know we wouldn't.  We would be too concerned about North Korea's ability to fire back into South Korea.  Every US-unfriendly nation has considered the possibility of US military intervention.  If they can, they've already found ways to make US intervention unpalatable.  "Punishing" Assad doesn't change that.  That's why --going back to #1 above -- the only intervention I could possibly support would be one that puts practical [literal!] roadblocks in the way of chemical weapons access and usage.)

Another reader, on the general need to broaden options. His note came with the subject line, "Linus Pauling said the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."

I'm surprised at the very skinny portfolio of options that has been publicly discussed in how to deal with the Syrian situation. Sending in cruise missiles is certainly one option, but I'd like to see a list of 10 or 20 from which to select. Too many articles I see are "bomb" or "don't bomb" and go no further. I want to see specific options under the "don't bomb" heading. And lots of them. Give us some choices.

Another, on the long game of law enforcement:

There is a solution.  It is probably long and tedious, but it absolutely works.

If it is proved that military chemical weapons were use by the Syrian regime, then international laws were violated.  Bring an case in the international court and get an indictment and warrant for the arrest of the suspect:  Assad?

Delegate several international LEOs [law enforcement organizations] to serve a warrant and arrest the suspect.  In a case like Syria, land the LEOs in the midst of an internationally authorized military battalion (brigade?) appropriately  supported by air and sea resources which conducts an approach march into the country to facilitate the arrest.  Give ample warning to country military forces to stand down in the vicinity of the approach march on pain of instant destruction otherwise.  Arrest the bugger and throw his ass in jail in Brussels.

Time consuming? Yes.  Tedious? Yes.  But all your legal Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.  And it's the right way to do things.  Should have been done in Iraq.

And, from someone in the U.S. military:

I oppose striking Syria in the way the President's described (if nothing else, it seems counterproductive). But I've kind of dreamed that what you'll get out of the referral to Congress is a good, deep thinking through of US goals and interests in the Syrian conflict, not just, "so, do we bomb some shit, or what?" and ideally an AUMF can reflect that.

One obvious case has to do with intel. Kerry's revelations suggested that we had intel before the attack, that the Syrians were going to use chemicals. So you have to think, well, hell, that was the time to drop a cruise missile real real near al Assad, with a warning note. But of course that kind of fast response could never happen with Congressional approval sought after the intel came in. So Congress can write an AUMF that maybe refuses the currently bruited-about actions but maybe -- if it's written tightly (like, somebody please draft Jack Goldsmith to do it), gives the President that kind of limited advance capability contingent on disclosure of certain intel to Congress.

A more likely case is the securing of Syrian chemical (and probably biological) weapons. If al Assad falls or even if the regime is seriously destabilized, there's going to be a lot of nasty stuff floating around, and one need only look at the collateral damage of Libya's  weapons going missing, to realize the consequences. So in that event I don't have a lot of problems with the idea of dropping the 82nd and 101st into Syria to gather up all the WMD they can find, fully aware that probably every faction on the ground will be trying to oppose them. Now, that's a pretty big, pretty formidable, "boots-on-the-ground" operation -- as far as I'm concerned they can be told to do it, get out Andy Weber-style, and kill anybody on any side that tries to stop them instead of "nation-building." I'd like to see an AUMF that provides for that under, again, some specifically defined set of events.

The point is that I think a "no" vote just like that is a bit silly. Congress has been given a golden opportunity to try to define exactly what our interests are or aren't, and they could -- at least in theory -- pass a law that sets that out and empowers the President properly. That would still save the President face -- even more than your proposed "no" -- because it would give him the muscle to really lay out our "red lines" and interests, and tells the regime and our allies when they hit our wall.

Last for the moment, a note from a few days ago:

1) Attack Syrian air defenses. Accomplishing this should not create the risk of collateral damage, as they are not hidden in schools and hospitals.  If the Syrian government does not stop their war on their citizens, then:

2) Attack the Syrian air force.  Destroy every piece of aircraft they own.  Get the Russians to not complain too much by telling them they will be able to sell them new equipment.  With no aircraft (especially no attack helicopters), their ability to kill their own civilians is hampered.  The possibility of this happening should be obvious to them once their air defenses are taken out.  If they can't see that, then they deserve to lose their jets and helicopters.  Again, there should be little risk of collateral damage, but I am guessing the civilians would be more worried about being killed by their own government than by Syrian jets falling out of the sky.

3) If they still insist on using chemical weapons or slaughtering their own citizens, flatten their government buildings. Make them run their government from caves or underground bunkers or wherever they flee.  So maybe the country will be plunged into chaos, how is that worse than what they have now?

We should not only intervene in mass slaughter when oil is involved.

 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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