The ending of this fairy tale might not be a happy one
President Obama surprised friends and foes alike with his announcement in the middle of Labor Day weekend that he would attack Syria, but ask Congress for approval first. Even more surprising is the idea that anyone — friends, foes or Congress — would take seriously his Goldilocks-like strike plan, with its promise of “not too much, not too little, just right” amounts of death and destruction somehow calibrated to punish Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons, but not defeat him. Fairy tales are not a sound basis for American strategy, especially in as volatile a part of the world as today’s Middle East. The coming debate on Capitol Hill must establish whether the president actually has a credible, coherent and reasonably promising plan, one that looks beyond his initial missile lay-down to shaping a positive outcome in Syria and minimizing the real dangers of retaliation from one or more quarters.
The following are among the issues Congress must address:
• If the object of the exercise is not only to penalize the Assad regime for killing large numbers of civilians with sarin nerve gas and perhaps other chemical agents, but also to prevent his stocks of such weapons from being used in the future, will the U.S. attack serve that purpose? It is hard to see how, unless it involves a concerted effort to destroy Mr. Assad’s chemical stockpiles.
Otherwise, there is a distinct possibility that either the regime’s own troops or allies (notably, Iran and its proxy, the designated-terrorist organization Hezbollah) or its enemies (notably, the Muslim Brotherhood and its partner in Syria, the designated-terrorist organization al Qaeda) will get their hands on these weapons. Either way, the prospect is for more chemical weapons use, not less, if Mr. Assad’s chemical arsenal is not eliminated.
Unfortunately, no one can promise that an effort to use force to neutralize Mr. Assad’s chemical stockpiles would be surgical and antiseptic — two attributes upon which Mr. Obama seems fixated. Even if we actually know where all of them are (including those Saddam Hussein is thought to have covertly transferred to Syria before we liberated Iraq), blowing up the caches will almost certainly result in some of their deadly contents being released downwind. So, what’s the plan?
• Those like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who insist the United States must help overthrow Mr. Assad, contend that there is an alternative in the Free Syrian Army. They assert that the organization is “moderate,” pro-Western and has a realistic possibility — with our assistance — of keeping Syria together and out of the hands of the Islamists who appear to dominate the opposition’s political and military operations.
There are a number of problems with this proposition, which Mr. Obama may have to endorse more or less explicitly to secure the support he acutely needs in the coming debate from the Senate’s Dynamic Duo, Batman McCain and his sidekick, Robin Graham. For one thing, it is far from clear that the Free Syrian Army is, as advertised, the secular hope for Syria. As Daniel Greenfield points out at FrontPage Magazine, even Elizabeth O’Bagy — who waxed enthusiastic about the rebel force in a Wall Street Journal opinion article last Saturday — told The New York Times in April, “My sense is that there are no seculars [in the Syrian rebel leadership].”
Then, there is the knotty problem that if the Free Syria Army somehow does prevail over Mr. Assad’s forces and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah units now augmenting them, the organization will also have to triumph over the avowedly Islamist units — including al Qaeda — with whom it is now aligned. If Mr. Obama is unable to offer a way to accomplish this hat trick, the best that can be hoped for is that Syria remains chaotically riven between our enemies: Assad and company on the one hand and the Sunni Islamists and their Free Syrian Army partners on the other. The unhappy alternative is that the worst in one or the other of these factions will emerge victorious, with dire consequences for Syria, the region and us.
• Among those most at risk from a bad outcome in Syria is Israel. To be sure, an Assad victory would strengthen and embolden Iran. Conversely, an Assad defeat, particularly at American hands, would be a strategic blow to the mullahs in Tehran — a prospect that is inducing some Israelis and many of their champions here to fall into line behind Mr. Obama’s proposed attack.
These stakes suggest, however, that Iran will do everything possible to make a U.S. intervention in Syria very costly. Its threats to retaliate against Israel if Mr. Obama pulls the trigger cannot be discounted. Neither should the possibility that Hezbollah cells known to be in this country will be ordered to carry out attacks here.
For those who think the United States must defeat the Iranian regime before it obtains nuclear weapons, there are other, more direct and certainly more effective means of doing so than by engaging in a bank-shot — particularly a Goldilocks-style one — by attacking Syria. We should help the people of Iran free themselves from their Islamist oppressors. Our success there would do more than any single other thing to assist the Syrian people.
A congressional debate on Mr. Obama’s Mideast policies is long overdue. If the impending one fails satisfactorily to address these critical topics, among many others, the president’s proposed attack on Syria will probably have — like some other fairy tales — an unhappy ending.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program “Secure Freedom Radio.”