What Going to War in Syria Would Really Mean for the U.S.

A brutal dictator, a violent terrorist group, and the morally fraught tradeoff that interventionists face
Badra Mamet/Reuters

Attacking Adolf Hitler's Germany benefited moral monster Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. That inescapable fact of World War II doesn't mean it wasn't worth fighting Nazis. Under the circumstances, allying with Stalin to beat Hitler was the right call. But the consequences of that fraught alliance were themselves horrific. To ignore its downsides would be to misunderstand the real choices America faced.

Today in Syria, the United States faces another set of harrowing tradeoffs. Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, is a murderous dictator. The various rebel groups trying to wrest the country from his control include ISIS, a radical Sunni militia. To strike Assad, as Obama threatened to do last summer, would help ISIS. To strike ISIS, as the Obama administration is threatening to do right now, would help Assad. Those are the unsavory choices confronting all who favor intervention. And while the prospect of aiding and abetting Assad or ISIS doesn't decisively prove that intervention is unwise, it is at least a factor that Americans ought to confront with open eyes, rather than pretending the tradeoff away. 

The New York Times is helping us to pretend. "Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly called for the ouster of Mr. Assad, is loath to be seen as aiding the Syrian government, even inadvertently," the newspaper reports. "As a result the Pentagon is drafting military options that would strike the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, near the largely erased border between those two nations, as opposed to more deeply inside Syria. The administration is also moving to bolster American support for the moderate Syrian rebels who view Mr. Assad as their main foe." 

This is an evasion. While theoretically possible to "thread the needle" such that two parties to a conflict are weakened while a third party is empowered, U.S. intervention in Syria will almost certainly empower either Assad or radical Sunni militias. There is no reason to believe we or anyone else is capable of pursuing a "third way." That level of precision is beyond what we're able to realistically exercise.

The Washington Post's coverage better captures that reality:

The breakaway al-Qaida group is the most powerful faction fighting Assad’s forces, which means a U.S. campaign to weaken the Islamic State extremists could actually strengthen a leader the White House has sought to push from office. Obama could try to counteract that awkward dynamic by also targeting Assad’s forces, though that could drag the U.S. into the bloody, complex conflict—something he has studiously tried to avoid.

The story then presents an evasion from the White House:

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama has not made a decision on whether to take military action inside Syria, but noted that the president has demonstrated his willingness to take military action to protect American citizens.

“That is true without regard to international borders,” he said.

Earnest tried to tamp down the notion that strikes against the Islamic State could have the unintended consequence of bolstering the Syrian government, saying: “We’re not interested in trying to help the Assad regime.” However, he noted that there are “a lot of cross-pressures here in this situation.”

A White House committed to leveling with us about the war it may start would admit that attacking ISIS will help Assad whether that "interests them" or not, and argue that doing so is the least-awful option.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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