The latest chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government against rebel-held areas in Idlib Province (see the BBC refutation of the denials from the Assad regime and its Russian ally here), has led to talk of military action against Assad. In skeptical response, Sean Davis, co-founder of the Federalist, has presented 14 questions ” that proponents of war in Syria must answer before anyone considers whether military intervention to remove Assad is the best course of action for the American people.”
I was one of the earliest proponents of liberating Syria from the Assad regime (I was calling for it in 1991 as a college freshman), and I still believe it is in America’s interests to do so. As such, I felt compelled to respond to Davis. His questions are below and in italics; my answers are in bold.
1) What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?
A1) In the short run, Bashar Assad has made clear he is more interested in preserving his own regime than fighting terrorism in his country (example, allowing Palmyra to lapse into Daesh control while he scorched Aleppo). In the long term, I firmly believe that a democratic government for Sunni-majority Syria would be friendlier to the United States and its own neighbor Israel than the Shiite-family-run Ba’athist regime dependent upon Russian military weaponry and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah to survive. It would also both stabilize Turkey’s southern border and provide a democratic ally as an alternative in the region to Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government.
2) How will deposing Assad make America safer?
A2) In part, see A1. Moreover, removal of an Iranian ally on the Mediterranean would make containment of Tehran (now a necessity in light of the nuclear deal that all but ensures Tehran will have nuclear weapons by 2025) far more likely to succeed, and make that regime’s efforts to export terror into the West (including the US) far more difficult.
3) What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved? Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?
A3) I consider victory to be the formation of what the founders would call “a republican form of government” (we call it “democracy” for the most part today) that can persevere without direct military assistance from the United States (although I would hope we could have a presence there, as we do in Eastern Europe for example, if it would project American strength and better defend our interests in the region as a whole).
4) What military resources (e.g., ground troops), diplomatic resources, and financial resources will be required to achieve this political victory?
A4) Given recent events (which are noted in further questions), I would recommend an approach I first presented in Bearing Drift in November 2015 – defeating and removing Daesh in Eastern Syria, building a smaller state in eastern Syria that is democratic and free of terror, and using eastern Syria as an example for the divided western part of the country, while helping non-al-Qaedist rebels defeat Assad in the west.
5) How long will it take to achieve political victory?
A5) While I am no military expert – and Mosul shows us that this is far from easy – the eastern Syria military action would largely be centered on removing Daesh from Raqqa, their “capital.” I’m estimating about one year for that. Standing up a temporary Syrian democracy in the eastern areas could likely take a couple more years at most (much of the area is Kurdish, and it’s far smaller than Iraq). Liberating western Syria could take much longer, but it would effectively be a proxy war, and exposure to our men and women in uniform should be small (but I’ll admit, not zilch).
6) What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?
A6) In terms of loss of life, I would say the equivalent of the Mosul operation – at a maximum, and that doesn’t take into account the reduction in life lost from allowing Daesh to continue to operate and from the lack of a local safe zone presently in place (a safe zone that by definition a democratic Eastern Syria would provide). For funding, I would estimate about 5% of Gulf War II expenditures (which, accounting for inflation, would mean about $6B-$7B a year, I think). The actions I propose would, I believe create far more problems for Russia – and thus force them to forgo more options in Eastern Europe – than for us.
7) What other countries will join the United States in deposing Assad, in terms of military, monetary, or diplomatic resources?
A7) I believe most, if not all, of the Sunni-run nations in the region would support us in one form or another. However, given that one of them would be the House of Saud, that wouldn’t be an unmitigated benefit.
8) Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?
A8) Congressional authorization should be requested. I hope Congress would agree to it. Such a series of actions as I propose needs the political capital that comes from a successful effort to win over the American people, or it is likely to fail.
9) What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?
A9) I limited military action to the east (where Russia doesn’t have a presence) in part to avoid such a conflict. So long as the action against Assad does not directly involve our military (as it wouldn’t under what I propose), the risk of a wider shooting war is minimal. Moreover, I believe the actions I propose will divert Russian resources from its other would-be-proxy-war-regions of interest (the Baltics, Ukraine, etc.).
10) If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?
A10) As what I propose is tailored to avoid such a larger shooting war, I will obviously acknowledge that “political victory” in such a war could redefine Pyrrhic. As far proxy war issues, see A10.
11) Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?
A11) As what I propose limits military action to the east (where the Syrian regime has no presence at all), I consider such a scenario unlikely – indeed, I limited military action to the east in order to prevent it. That said, we should use the Kennedy Doctrine (during the Cuban Missile Crisis) and state that a WMD-based attack from Assad will be interpreted as a WMD-based attack from Russia itself. I believe that would be enough to prevent this scenario.
12) Assuming the Assad regime is successfully removed from power, what type of government structure will be used to replace Assad, who will select that government, and how will that government establish and maintain stability going forward?
A12) As I stated in A3, it would be a republican form of government (or, if you prefer, “democracy”) elected by the Syrian people to govern them. How that government chooses to stabilize the country will be up to them, with our advice and help.
13) Given that a change in political power in the United States radically altered the American position in Iraq in 2009, how will you mitigate or address the risk of a similar political dynamic upending your preferred strategy in Syria, either in 2018, 2020, or beyond?
A13) This in part fueled my answer in A8. Making clear the specific aims and plans – and getting buy-in from the American people via their elected Congress – will help to avoid the loss of support at home for the effort (which in no small part drove the change in US policy in January 2009). I also believe eastern Syria can be stabilized more easily than all of Iraq. The most difficult part will be maintaining support for efforts to help anti-Assad non-al-Qaedists in western Syria. This is where the Syrian diaspora, having felt Assad’s brutality up close, can be helpful both in rallying the American people and in providing intelligence to help us and our allies in Syria liberate the west.
14) What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?
A14) First, be clear with the objectives – *all* of them. Lack of understanding behind the liberation of Iraq (besides the WMD issue) crippled that effort politically. Second, have a game plan in place for building the democracy to replace the targeted tyranny. This was done later than it should have in Iraq, and not at all in Libya. Finally, have better contacts with friends in-country, and use them more wisely.
For what it’s worth, I appreciate Davis asking these questions. They focus the mind quite well, and have enabled me to present what I think is a more robust defense of both my overall goal and my particular (and, to some, likely peculiar) plan to achieve it. I hope he and those who read his post find my answers at least partly satisfactory, and assuming (as I do) they were asked in good faith, I look forward to further discussion on this. I do believe we need to free Syria from the Assad regime, but I also agree that we need to do it right.