Yes: Focus should be diplomacy, not more troops
The administration of President Donald Trump needs to get its act together lest we dig ourselves deeper into the Syrian quagmire without truly intending to.
Late last month, barely one hour before the White House surprisingly warned the Syrian government against launching a chemical attack, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters the U.S. wasn’t interested in getting more involved in Syria.
Days later, with no chemical attack having occurred, Mattis took credit for a great success, saying the White House threat had worked. It is also a fact that Canada did not bomb Cleveland that day.
The White House statement, it seems, was a follow-up response to an April incident in which the Syrian government launched an attack that wound up killing and injuring scores of civilians. Though international monitors said chemical weapons were used in the attack, the Syrian government said only conventional weapons were deployed, a claim given some credence in a recent article by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Writing in German newspaper Die Welt and citing anonymous Trump administration sources, Hersh said although CIA and military analysts expressed doubts that chemical weapons had been used, Trump wanted action, leading to the military’s launching of tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase.
Whatever policy one favors for the United States in Syria, missiles should not be launched absent clarity over the circumstances.
And the Trump administration’s June threat was only its most recent move that could embroil us more deeply in the Syrian war.
We shot down a Syrian government jet fighter that was engaging a rebel force. The White House said the jet was a threat to forces we were advising. In another episode, we went on the offensive after a Syrian aircraft flew close to a base where we are training anti-government forces.
Military involvement in Syria is a no-win proposition for the United States. The most significant sectors of the anti-government forces there are extremists, not pro-democratic moderates. The Syrian government, despite its faults — and they are many — is the only source of stability in the country.
Top administration officials have conceded the Syrian government cannot readily be dislodged. The elements we support lack the wherewithal to defeat it, even if they are able to hold some territory.
France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, has come to that conclusion as well, so France, which previously backed the opposition forces, now favors accommodation.
Deeper military involvement by the United States in Syria will only prolong a conflict that has already consumed too many lives. Problematic as it may seem, diplomacy is the only way to go.
John B. Quigley is a distinguished professor of law at Ohio State University. He is the author of 11 books on various aspects of international law. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 West 12th St., Columbus, Ohio, 43210.
No: Crushing extremism is first step toward Middle East peace
Anyone who thinks the United States should get deeply involved in the Syrian civil war ought to have his head examined.
But there are no easy answers for this quagmire. If there were, the strongmen in Tehran and Moscow wouldn’t stand by and let responsible nations implement them.
That is not say the U.S. should sheepishly acknowledge the dictatorial, genocidal regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. We have to do something. But what?
For starters, we have to clarify our objectives, the foremost of which should be crushing extremists like the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Further, in addition to keeping the war from destabilizing Iraq and Jordan, we must remain mindful of refugee populations and the possibility of conflict rippling over into Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. Finally, the U.S. needs to contain the growing negative influence of Iran.
All this can be done without diving head-long into the Syrian civil war.
That said, it’s clear the U.S. military will have to get at least somewhat involved.
If Syria’s domestic troubles and the terrorists who call it home would simply stay within the borders that mark the nation on a map, the U.S. could sit things out. But like a homeowner who spots a fire in his neighbor’s backyard, we have to take action.
That means continuing to support others with military operations aimed at wresting extremists’ territorial control. It also means working with allies to prevent Iran from completing a highway connecting it with Israel neighbor Lebanon. We must also promote stable, humane governance in liberated territories.
While there are no guarantees in war, the chances of Syrian involvement pushing the U.S. into a wider conflict are small. Damascus, Moscow and Tehran aren’t much interested in directly warring on one another.
That doesn’t mean Syria, Russia and Iran want the U.S. to succeed in Syria. Each would be happy to see us falter, and Washington should remain alert to any threats the parties might present.
But what’s most important is that the Trump administration ensures the Islamic State’s defeat and wisely plans, with an eye to the broader region, for what comes next. Achieving our goals in Syria will mean little if we can’t bring about a greater measure of peace and stability to the Middle East.
A 25-year Army veteran, Heritage Foundation vice president James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on foreign policy and defense issues. Readers may write him at Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C., 20002.