Last Night’s U.S. Strike on Syria

Last Night’s U.S. Strike on Syria

I posted the following statement on Facebook yesterday, as it seemed highly likely to me that a U.S. airstrike would be forthcoming quickly.

When the question of whether or not to bomb the Syrian regime came before the Obama administration in 2013, I believed that such a strike would be a mistake. He had already made the error of placing the credibility of the United States on the line in hopes of deterring Assad’s use of chemical weapons. American credibility suffered in the Middle East and beyond as a result of the perception that it did not have the stomach to actually perform its asserted role of leader of the liberal international order.

Even given the likely reputational costs of not acting assertively against Assad’s atrocities though, I believed, and continue to believe, that the risks of such strikes far outweigh the potential benefits. The dual risks of being drawn into unintended war with Russia and triggering an escalation of the Iran/Shia vs. GCC/Sunni split in the region are singularly and jointly sufficient for me to make such an evaluation. They do not, however, exhaust the risks of military strikes against the Syrian regime.

I wanted to make sure that I expressed my position on this before the strikes were launched. Indeed, a 24-hour 180 degree turn on the President’s position regarding military strategy toward Syria did ultimately result in the launching of air strikes. The U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk Missiles at Shayrat Air Base in Syria, as it was allegedly the launch point for the chemical attack by Syrian President Assad on April 4.

I will be commenting in more depth on a number of dimensions of this decision and the inevitable action-reaction cycle that will follow, involving various significant actors with unique interests at stake. For now, I will simply say the following.

    1. My contention continues to be that the potential risks of airstrikes against the Syrian regime outweigh the potential benefits. These strikes made no strategic difference in the conflict. Indeed, the scale and scope of the attack seem to make the move largely symbolic, rather than targeted at changing the situation in Syria. Expanded strikes would only increase the likelihood of those risks coming to fruition.
    2. This symbolic character in and of itself, does not mean that the strikes were insignificant or indefensible. As a student and advocate of human rights and humanitarian law, I am not negatively disposed to humanitarian interventions in general terms. I do however, think that any such decision should be made within the context of an array of relevant strategic calculations. Given my points above about those calculations and my assessment that this will not have any positive impact for the victims of Assad’s and his allies’ brutality in Syria, a symbolic strike is not justified, in my view.
    3. My criticisms are entirely focused at the strategic level of this issue. In no shape, manner, or form should they be interpreted as not respecting or appreciating the job that our military does when it is ordered to. It does so with courage and professionalism. While my analytical judgement and my sense of duty compel me to speak out about this, I hope that those whom I know and care deeply about, and who are in harm’s way, know that this does not mean that I do not support them with all my heart. I do.

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