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.

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Members have made 31 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of jonorose Inactive

    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.

    • #1
    • February 12, 2012 at 5:36 am
  2. Profile photo of Israel P. Member

    Has there ever been meaningful cliche-mongering?

    • #2
    • February 12, 2012 at 6:27 am
  3. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    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. 

    • #3
    • February 12, 2012 at 6:30 am
  4. Profile photo of Matthew Gilley Member

    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.

    • #4
    • February 12, 2012 at 6:39 am
  5. Profile photo of Percival Thatcher

    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.

    • #5
    • February 12, 2012 at 6:59 am
  6. Profile photo of jonorose Inactive

    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…

    • #6
    • February 12, 2012 at 7:00 am
  7. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe

    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.

    • #7
    • February 12, 2012 at 7:03 am
  8. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe

    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.

    • #8
    • February 12, 2012 at 7:06 am
  9. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    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. 

    • #9
    • February 12, 2012 at 7:12 am
  10. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    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. 

    • #10
    • February 12, 2012 at 7:16 am
  11. Profile photo of Percival Thatcher
    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.

    • #11
    • February 12, 2012 at 7:56 am
  12. Profile photo of flownover Inactive

    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.

    • #12
    • February 12, 2012 at 8:52 am
  13. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe

    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….

    • #13
    • February 12, 2012 at 9:28 am
  14. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe

    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.

    • #14
    • February 12, 2012 at 9:30 am
  15. Profile photo of DocJay Member

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

    • #15
    • February 12, 2012 at 9:41 am
  16. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe

    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.

    • #16
    • February 12, 2012 at 9:58 am
  17. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe
    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.

    • #17
    • February 12, 2012 at 9:59 am
  18. Profile photo of Viator Member

    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.

    • #18
    • February 12, 2012 at 10:02 am
  19. Profile photo of James Gawron Coolidge

    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!!!

    • #19
    • February 12, 2012 at 11:10 am
  20. Profile photo of jonorose Inactive
    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.

    • #20
    • February 12, 2012 at 11:18 am
  21. Profile photo of shorteddy Inactive

    As a western observer we are tempted to identify who the good guys are and support them. We also have rules of war tha segregate civilians from soldiers.I would posit that neither applies in Syria. There are no good guys in this fight if Sunnis were in control they would genocide the Allawites, Allawites know this, which is why they took over the country. For their part they are willing to slaughter to save themselves. There are no good guys (except perhaps Christians and Druze caught in the middle).And civilians? These are wars between communities, not armies. If the Allawaites lose their families are dead. They are applying the same logic to the Sunnis.My own interest? I want Hizbullah to lose a patron, I want Iran to lose an ally. I would love peace and freedom, but failing that I’d like Syria to cease being a functional power in the region. I think a Sunni theocracy would be worse than an Assad dictatorship on policy, but it would be militarily and economically irrelevant. So I’d support settling Allawites in the Golan and the internal collapse of Syria to Assad. Liberty, of course, would be best.

    • #21
    • February 12, 2012 at 11:44 am
  22. Profile photo of Stuart Creque Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    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.

    I am sure Assad knows that using chemical weapons means nuclear retaliation by NATO, simply for containment of the chemwar threat. If Assad doesn’t get it, his generals do. Chemwar isn’t a desperation defense: it’s patent suicide, and Assad and his cadres are the opposite of suicidal.

    • #22
    • February 13, 2012 at 1:11 am
  23. Profile photo of iWe Member
    iWe

    Good point on civvies vs military. All the chips are in the pot.

    • #23
    • February 13, 2012 at 1:15 am
  24. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    James GawronJonorose,

    The President of the United States and his policies are directly responsible for the results in Egypt and Syria.

    No. He’s not. It’s a fundamental mistake to assume the United States has that much control over this region. It’s a mistake when people in this region believe it, it’s a mistake when Americans believe it.

    We have a small amount of influence over a few things. That influence is lessening, for reasons much larger than Obama. 

    • #24
    • February 13, 2012 at 4:08 am
  25. Profile photo of Tennessee Patriot Member

    shorteddy: “I want Hizbullah to lose a patron, I want Iran to lose an ally. I would love peace and freedom, but failing that I’d like Syria to cease being a functional power in the region.”

    Exactly right. The Syrian people have a right to armed revolt against an illegitimate regime (see the Declaration of Independence). We should at least make sure they have rifles, shotguns, pistols and ammunition. If police and armed forces continue to switch sides- very bravely- they have a chance. Iran would lose a client, Palestinian terrorists would lose a patron, and Israel and Lebanon could breathe more easily. (BTW- does shorteddy mean what it sounds like?)

    • #25
    • February 13, 2012 at 5:01 am
  26. Profile photo of flownover Inactive

    So Claire, is this a hopeless situation ?Or a chess game with Israel as the prize ?

    • #26
    • February 13, 2012 at 5:02 am
  27. Profile photo of Tennessee Patriot Member

    BTW- Syrians can’t throw their hands up just because the government has WMD and more weapons.

    • #27
    • February 13, 2012 at 5:04 am
  28. Profile photo of shorteddy Inactive

    What does shorteddy sound like?

    • #28
    • February 13, 2012 at 5:46 am
  29. Profile photo of James Gawron Coolidge
    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. · 7 hours ago

    Jonorose,

    The President of the United States and his policies are directly responsible for the results in Egypt and Syria. Also, he is directly responsible for the lack of results in Iran.

    He had it in his power to destroy one monster, instead he has created two more. This is incompetence that is criminal. Endlessly discussing Bush who was elected by a tiny majority and never had control of both houses of congress is absurd.

    Jim

    • #29
    • February 13, 2012 at 6:07 am
  30. Profile photo of James Gawron Coolidge

    Claire,

    I am sorry Claure, but it is you who are wrong. You have bought too many false postulates from the other side. They are responsible for much of the failure of the Bush foriegn policy. They were not a loyal opposition, they were in fact a 5th column the whole time. They had huge power and used it not in America’s interest.

    The only mistake Bush made was not following Shock and Awe with the Surge immediately. The results would have been massively different with or without help from the disloyal opposition party.

    The inability of America to project it’s power is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the left wing. Not an inevitable reality. The Muslim brotherhood is purging (murdering) all the Mubarak people just like Stalin in the 30s. This should have been forseen and forestalled. It is the childish wishful thinking of the Obamites that has caused this result.

    I loved and love my brilliant older sister, however, sometimes she was wrong and I was right. It happens.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #30
    • February 13, 2012 at 9:36 am
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