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.