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August 08, 2012

Just When I Thought I Was Out... They Pull Me Back In
Posted by James Lamond

Just-when-thought

It has been a while since I have posted here. But there is nothing like an op-ed by Sens. McCain, Graham and Lieberman to pull me back in.

In the column, the Senators called for greater action in Syria, saying the Obama administration’s “hands-off approach” is not working. Specifically they call for arming the opposition forces and carving out a safe-havens, including with U.S. airpower.

First, the idea that the U.S. is not doing anything because it has not engaged in military action needs to be addressed. There is a multipronged approach to the crisis that includes financial assistance, contact with opposition groups on the ground, international politicking, security contingency planning and humanitarian assistance. Last week the White House announced $12 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, bringing the total to $76 million while Secretary Panetta met Syria’s neighbors coordinating responses to refugee flows and delivery of humanitarian aid.

State announced last week that the U.S. increased funding for “non-lethal” assistance to the opposition groups as well as granting authorization for the Washington representatives of the FSA to conduct transactions on the groups’ behalf. Meanwhile, senior officials, including now-returned Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and his team at State are staying in close contact with the opposition groups while others are focusing on diplomatic strategies with regional powers and the external opposition.

The Pentagon has been “working overtime” on planning around concerns over chemical weapons, both their use and concerns about the stockpiles falling into the wrong hands. The Pentagon, on its own initiative, also developed a Crisis Asset Team, to prepare the U.S. military for any role it might have to take.

To say that the U.S. is “sit[ting] on our hands, hoping for the best,” is simply wrong. There are options other than military, and the U.S. is pursuing them and planning accordingly.

But more importantly McCain, Lieberman and Graham fail to address essential questions that must be answered when thinking about military action, which reflects a failure to learn some of the most important lessons of the past decade.

In in this excellent essay last month Brian Fishman points out that military action in Syria is not as simple as many suggest, and not necessarily a solution to the humanitarian crisis. One of the primary arguments against a plan such as that proposed by McCain, Lieberman and Graham (arming rebels while carving out safe zones) is the inherent path towards deeper involvement.  As Fishman says, "creating ‘safe zones’ is unlikely to resolve the humanitarian crisis… but it will signal a political commitment to military resolution of the conflict.” What is our objective and how far is the U.S. willing to go? What is the U.S. role in a post-Assad Syria, particualrly if violence continues? 

Further, there is no way to know that military intervention will prevent a humanitarian disaster. For example Iraq from saw incredible sectarian violence despite a large presence of U.S. forces on the ground. Is the military option the best way to achieve the stated objective of protecting civilian?

Finally, creating safe zones, is not as easy or risk-free as many of its proponents make it out to be. Syria’s military air defense system is strong, after significant  enhancements following the embarrassing 2007 Israeli airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor. As Fishman states:

“Even limited military goals in Syria will require a broad campaign to suppress Syrian air defense systems and, probably, surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missile systems capable of striking western assets. In densely populated Syria, striking those surface-to-air systems is likely to create a slew of unintended civilian casualties (not to mention the threat to U.S. pilots). Much of the world shuddered at the human cost of bombing Baghdad in 2003; do we expect the bombing of Damascus to be so much more precise? How many civilians is it acceptable to kill on a humanitarian mission?"

Can we achieve our objective with an acceptable amount of risk to our forces? What is the acceptable amount of risk to the civilian population? The Senators are concerned about goodwill and America’s moral standing in the region, but what are the strategic consequences of civilian casualties?

I realize that Senators McCain, Lieberman and Graham are not the only three to have made these recommendations without answering these important questions. However, these three have repeatedly ignored the lessons of the past decade while advocating for various military actions. I suppose it is somewhat ironic to hear from the some of the strongest advocates of the Iraq War that, “we are jeopardizing both our national security interests and our moral standing in the world,” by not engaging in military action in Syria.

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