Syria, Meaningless Cliché-Mongering, and Pitiful Evasion

Yesterday on NRO, David Pryce-Jones quite accurately described Western diplomacy on Syria as a theater of the absurd:

What’s happening in Syria proves yet again the difficulties and disadvantages of dealing with tyranny. The diplomatic ineptitude of the good guys merges with their lack of will to evolve a military strategy. Poor Ban Ki-moon, the mouse-like U.N. secretary general, can only moan about Bashar Assad’s “appalling brutality” and the Russian and Chinese veto on what might otherwise have led to unanimous condemnation and perhaps eventual action, Kosovo style. Hillary Clinton speaks of “sending a clear message of support” to the Free Syrian Army, and invites Assad to step down — that will really rattle the brute. William Hague talks of “tightening the stranglehold” while also assuring everyone that he is in touch with dissidents abroad and no arms are being sent to those who are fighting on the streets for regime change. The response to Assad’s mass murder of his people, then, is meaningless cliché-mongering and pitiful evasion.

No argument from me. But anyone who wants to go beyond cliché-mongering and pitiful evasion has to go further than his conclusion:

To arm the Free Syrian Army is self-defense, as it may be the only measure still available to prevent the Syrian civil war from swelling and bursting from a regional issue into an international crisis.

Andrew Exum succinctly described the problem with that here:

As some of you may know, I have been shocked by the ease with which some in U.S. policy circles have begun to consider armed intervention in Syria. Many of these same people supported the military intervention in Libya, though few of them seem to have any intellectual interest in dealing with the awful mess that remains – perhaps proving that when it comes to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, most liberal interventionists are no better than most neoconservatives.

Since most analysts seem to have quickly realized that the establishment of safe havens or no-fly zones would be very difficult if not also quixotic, the new big idea is to arm the Free Syrian Army, which may or may not even be an actual thing. John McCain thinks this is a good idea, as does Elliott Abrams. Even Dan Drezner, who is usually a careful thinker about such things, is on the bandwagon.

My colleague Marc Lynch has a long post explaining why no, this is probably not a very good idea.

My question for those who support arming Syrian guerrilla groups was prompted by something Drezner wrote:

“What’s going on inside of Syria is a civil war, and the government is clearly receiving ample support from both Russia and Iran. Arming the opposition at least evens the odds on the battlefield.”

Really? Did Drezner or anyone else consult an actual order of battle before talking about “evening the odds?” According to the 2011 Military Balance, Syria has:

  1. 4,950 main battle tanks.

  2. 2,450 BMPs.
  3. 1,500 more armored personnel carriers.
  4. 3,440+ pieces of artillery.
  5. 600,000 men under arms in the active and reserve forces.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say Syria can only field half of the above equipment and personnel due to maintenance issues and defections or whatever. We’re still talking about a ridiculous amount of advanced weaponry. What arms, then, are we talking about giving these guerrilla groups? Nukes?

I too am shocked by the willingness of so many commenters to suggest a policy based upon outrage at the situation and shame at our impotence in the face of it–which obviously every decent person feels–without consideration of the most basic military realities. Leon Wieseltier’s piece in The New Republic falls under this category:

An American official remarked that “there is a growing danger that if the slaughter which Assad has been engaging in continues, others might step forward to aid the opposition.” That is the danger? We should be those others. We should aid and arm the Free Syrian Army, perhaps with the Saudis and the Qataris and Obama’s regional idol Erdogan, and offer protection to the parts of the country that they control. We should immiserate the Assad regime economically and banish it to a North Korean purgatory diplomatically. Like the army proposed by the Pentagon, we must be “agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies.” 

Fine, fine, let’s be ready for the full range of contingencies–including all the contingencies suggested by the well-known fact that Assad has the largest and most advanced chemical weapons capability in the Middle East, as well as missiles that can deliver that chemical payload anywhere in this neighborhood. (Goodbye, Judith! It’s kind of hard to know whether you or I would be the first to die; on the one hand, Israel’s always such a tempting target; on the other, everyone seems most keen to volunteer Turkey to lead the charge.) So, let’s all say the words “massive stockpiles of Sarin, VX and mustard gas” to ourselves a few times. That will be a useful corrective to meaningless cliché-mongering and pitiful evasion, or at least it will be to anyone who’s actually downwind.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that Assad is strapping civilians to tanks as human shields.  

  1. jonorose

    Totally reminds me of the quote from the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War” – “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…. and then we f#$%ed up the end-game”.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  2. Israel P.

    Has there ever been meaningful cliche-mongering?

  3. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Israel P.: Has there ever been meaningful cliche-mongering? · 1 minute ago

    Yes, I’d say. That something is a cliche doesn’t make it meaningless. 

  4. Matthew Gilley

    Please don’t take this the wrong way and think I’m making a flippant comparison, but Syria reminds me of one of those newfangled curlicue light bulbs.  No one wants them, for some reason we’ve come to a point where we can’t avoid them, and if they break their contents are so toxic you cannot safely go near them.

  5. Percival

    The rules for intervention in a civil war are pretty simple.  I can’t find a cite on this, but I know I’ve read it somewhere.

    Rule #1: Don’t.

    Rule #2: If you’ve already determined that you have or are about to break Rule #1, pick a side.

    Rule #3: Make sure your side wins.

    Getting involved for strictly humanitarian reasons might make one feel better about oneself, but we are going to have a real problem with Rule #2.  This is becoming apparent in Libya, and for the same reasons.  We don’t really know who is on “our” side, or what fresh hell they’ll usher in once they come into power.

  6. jonorose

    Claire, I’m as concerned as you about the possible repurcussions of intervention in Syria, but here’s the thing:

    What happens if Assad Jr., spurred by the impotence of the West and the Arab League to take any meaningful action against his relatively low body count (relative being the operative word) decides to emulate his father and proceeds to massacre a good 10,000 of his own countrymen in one swoop against Homs or Hama or wherever? Can we live with ourselves knowing that perhaps we could have taken more action to bolster the opposition, or perhaps to even intervene directly  by committing boots to the ground, creating a no-fly zone, etc.? Wouldn’t that perhaps have a better influence on creating a more pro-Western feeling amongst anti-Assad parties?

    It seems like we may be damned if we do, and equally damned if we don’t…

  7. iWc

    If Syria cannot be on the path to freedom and democracy, I will be content if they spend decades in civil strife and turmoil. At least they would be absorbing those energies internally, instead of trying to war on innocents.I prefer a messed-up Syria to a competent one led by an evil dictator. Best of all, of course, would be a country that wants to be better than Iraq and Turkey in terms of liberalization. Not holding my breath.

  8. iWc

    Don’t be fooled by numbers. Arab nations are unbelievably bad at fielding at wielding weaponry. I’d be shocked if Assad could effectively use 5% of his forces.

  9. Claire Berlinski
    C
    jonorose: Claire, I’m as concerned as you about the possible repurcussions of intervention in Syria, but here’s the thing…

    I am completely willing to have this conversation. In fact, I’m having nothing but this conversation in my head. I just want it to start in “realityland,” which involves that order of battle. 

  10. Claire Berlinski
    C
    iWc: Don’t be fooled by numbers. Arab nations are unbelievably bad at fielding at wielding weaponry. I’d be shocked if Assad could effectively use 5% of his forces. · 6 minutes ago

    1) And the FSA will naturally become a trained, disciplined, effective fighting force?  

    2) And if Assad does effectively use 5 percent of his forces? Do the math on “effectively using 5 percent of the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the region.” It’s not good. 

  11. Percival
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    iWc: Don’t be fooled by numbers. Arab nations are unbelievably bad at fielding at wielding weaponry. I’d be shocked if Assad could effectively use 5% of his forces. · 6 minutes ago

    1) And the FSA will naturally become a trained, disciplined, effective fighting force?  

    2) And if Assad does effectively use 5 percent of his forces? Do the math on “effectively using 5 percent of the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the region.” It’s not good.  · 25 minutes ago

    If Assad does unleash the chemical weapons, it might change the diplomatic equilibrium, but that would be dependent on whether or not Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao feel any particular need to appear to be humanitarians.  Probably not, in other words.

    I don’t think that the FSA stands much of a chance as it is, and we stand little chance of influencing that very much short of either diving into the fray or providing arms and training.  The weapons we would send in will either one day be turned on innocents (assuming that they aren’t already dead at that point) or on our allies, or on us.

  12. flownover

    the order of battle means that the USA would have trouble with our ground forces en toto.that is a daunting number indeed, but samantha powers says R2P, so what’s a liberal prog prez to do ? it does all come dwn to him.all these damned proxies are a stupid residual from cold war mentality, and as the first noted, arming the taliban had some unintended conseq.

  13. iWc

    I think we could credibly defend an “target-practise” style air campaign that removes the Syrian air force and heavy artillery/tanks from the equation.

    Should keep the rebellion going….

  14. iWc

    I think in hindsight, Libya was a success. Civil war, and no real threat to the rest of us.

    Of course, nature abhors a vaccuum. I guess a new strongman is pretty inevitable at some point.

  15. DocJay

    There is nothing good that can come from intervening in this catastrophe beyond escalating the carnage.

  16. iWc

    I would not worry about the chemical weapons. They are very tricky to deploy, and winds make them quite dodgy. The only successful deployment I am aware of is what Saddam did to the Kurds – and that was via aerial bombardment.

    Assad’s army would probably be unwilling to deploy via artillery because of the risk to themselves.

  17. iWc
    DocJay: There is nothing good that can come from intervening in this catastrophe beyond escalating the carnage. · 17 minutes ago

    On balance, Assad in power may be worse than carnage.

  18. Viator

    Some people who know a lot about slaughter and sectarian violence enter the fray:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9077386/Al-Qaeda-leader-urges-Muslim-world-to-support-Syrian-uprising.html

    War in Syria will be asymmetric so much of that outmoded  Soviet Syrian military equipment will be useless. Further as the US grievously learned most of those mechanized vehicles are very vulnerable to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

    The use of ubiquitous and effective RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) against armor and mechanized vehicles:

    “In Afghanistan, Mujahideen guerrillas used RPG-7s to destroy Soviet vehicles.”

    “During the First (1994–1996) and Second Chechen Wars (1999–2009), Chechen rebels used RPGs to attack Russian tanks from basements and high rooftops. This tactic was effective because tank main guns could not be depressed or raised far enough to return fire, in addition, armor on the very top and bottom of tanks is usually the weakest”

    “In the period following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the RPG became a favorite weapon of the insurgent forces fighting U.S. troops.”

    I don’t see 3.5 million Alawites subduing 20 million of their fellow citizens. They are going to lose.

  19. James Gawron

    Claire,

    It is so simple.   When you can not define genocide.   When you equate an absolute tyranny like Assad’s Syria with real human rights democracys around the world.  When you engage in imaginary wishful thinking foriegn policy like “Reaching out to Islam”.  

    You have destroyed your own moral integrity & credible standing.   THIS RENDERS ALL DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS IMPOTENT!!!

    There is a solution for this.   Remove the fool in the White House, ASAP!!!

  20. jonorose
    James Gawron: Claire,

    It is so simple.   When you can not define genocide.   When you equate an absolute tyranny like Assad’s Syria with real human rights democracys around the world.  When you engage in imaginary wishful thinking foriegn policy like “Reaching out to Islam”.  

    You have destroyed your own moral integrity & credible standing.   THIS RENDERS ALL DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS IMPOTENT!!!

    There is a solution for this.   Remove the fool in the White House, ASAP!!! · 4 minutes ago

    I hate to point this out, but Darfur happened on Bush’s watch, and that was FAR worse a tragedy, and IMHO fully qualified as genocide. So Obama may be a fool, but on this point he is certainly not alone.