The leaders of the countries planning to carry out a military strike against Syria are strikingly uncertain both of the cause of their action as well as its possible outcome. It is a truism that generals always wage wars according to the previous war, and their plans are therefore fated to fail. Today, politicians appear to be acting on the basis of what they learned from previous wars – and this allows some hope that maybe this time we may avoid the worst possible outcome.
In the case of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States and its allies had every reason to want to bring down the Taliban government and destroy al-Qaida, but they had no idea what would come next. In Iraq, the cause of war (the threat of weapons of mass destruction) was a figment of the imagination of President George W. Bush’s neoconservative aides. In both cases, military intervention triggered long and costly involvement in a nightmare that has not ended. Fearing involvement in yet another faraway country whose conflicts they do not understand, most politicians and public opinion in the United States and its allies are very wary of a Syrian entanglement from which they are highly unlikely to gain anything.
Why then, after two-and-a-half years of war and over 100,000 deaths, should the allies now be planning precisely such an intervention? President Barack Obama summarized his thoughts in an interview with PBS on Wednesday, stressing the limited nature of the planned operation and the fact that its benefits would not be immediate. “If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘Stop doing this,’ this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” he said.
Until late Thursday, when senior members of the US administration and intelligence service officials were to brief members of Congress, we had no evidence directly connecting President Bashar al-Assad to the use of chemical weapons. Perhaps that, along with the fear of what comes next, prompted the White House to say that regime change was not its target. It is clear that Obama cannot avoid taking a strong stand against chemical weapons, because the use of them by terrorists is the nightmare of every country that considers itself a likely target. However, weakening Assad’s regime and tearing Syria apart would strengthen the very groups that would be prime suspects for such an attack on the United States and its allies. It is certain that this paradox is not lost on the Americans.
Perhaps even at this stage, when the impasse of military action is clear, the international community, the Syrian government and the more moderate elements of the Syrian rebels can finally look for a political solution. Only the fear of worse developments can give this hope a chance.