Is the West Overthinking The Syrian Dilemma?

A burning building in Homs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Syrian dilemma troubles most people who aren’t on the hawkish, neocon right. As well it should. While we wait for the US discussion in Congress on Monday, I’m still sorting through what I think. I’m still uneasy about the position I take, arguing for attacks. It seems to go against my nature, and although I have argued for intervention more than I would have liked to in the recent past — in the Yugoslav wars, in Afghanistan, in Libya and (at least as a thought experiment) during the Gaza war of 2009 — it always feels wrong. As it should. Acts of war always produce bad outcomes and damage to the social fabric of the countries engaged. But I they can also stop even worse outcomes.


In the past few days, while I’ve become gradually more convinced about the case for military strikes, I’ve seen a tendency develop to overthink the Syrian dilemma. Not in the sense that thinking about the strikes is detrimental— on the contrary, it’s essential. And I’ve been positively surprised by the level of nuanced, insightful, complex commentary on the situation from most sides.

Rather I mean overthink in the sense that a lot of discussion seems to be devoted to parsing out a dilemma of far greater scope than the rather limited problem of the current situation. A lot of discussion seems to revolve around what good it does for the US or the UN to get involved in the conflict. How does it resolve the conflict? How can we support the non-schoolboy Syrian rebels? What happens if the rebels win? What are the regional implications?

These are all good questions, but they aren’t questions that directly apply to the current situation. It’s quite clear that a one-off strike using mostly cruise missiles is what is the US intention. Protracted engagement, and that by now flogged-to-death euphemism of boots on the ground is not going to happen.

The arguments against war seem to be mostly arguments against war: Going all in, guns blazing, and taking sides in the fight beyond what the West is already doing. And they are good arguments. But they’re not arguments against a hard and well-planned cruise missile strike.


What does a retaliatory, one-off strike accomplish? 

  1. It degrades both the ability and the will of the regime forces to deploy chemical weapons in the future.
  2. It creates a certain level of military losses in the Assad government military apparatus, hastening at least somewhat a resolution of the conflict in favour of the parties that are most obviously the desired winner of the conflict (certain of the rebel factions).
  3. It enforces the norm of the chemical weapons ban, degrading the will to use chemical weapons in the future.
  4. It takes the possibly decisive battlefield advantage of chemical weapons off the table for the Assad regime.

It does not:

  1. End the war.
  2. Solve the problem.
  3. Rid the West of the moral imperative to work hard to end the war. The diplomatic approach needs to be taken after the strikes. Or maybe the US could even use the threat of strikes to force Assad to the table. Given that he’s committed unforgivable war crimes over the past two years (and in the past month), that’s unlikely.
  4. Insulate the West against blowback.


The false parallel to Iraq is another way of overthinking. People’s faith in the trustworthiness of the US government in questions of WMDs and war is low. The desire for foreign wars is low.

On the whole, this is a good thing. Wars should be approached skeptically and blind trust in the evidence of things not seen is a terribly bad thing. But this case for the Iraq objection neglects three things: the hard cost of doing nothing, the unusually clear intelligence case and the moral imperative to a) enforce the norm of chemical weapons b) prevent future attacks in Syria or elsewhere c) punish indiscriminate attacks on civilians in some way.

Just to state my position: to my mind, there can not be any doubt about the facts of the chemical attacks. It was definitely nerve gas, probably sarin, used indiscriminately and purposefully against civilians — who were part of the target package — and it was undoubtedly the Syrian military who fired them. And they did kill many hundreds, probably over a thousand people, injuring at least four more

Though to be fair, you should read Andrew Sullivan’s very strong case against my position on the Iraq parallel. And this part of his advice is probably well-taken whether or not Obama wins the vote on Monday:

Lose the vote, don’t go to war, but go to the UN repeatedly and insistently. Gather more and more evidence. Get Ambassador Power to pummel the Russians and Chinese with their grotesque refusal to do anything about this ghastly mass murder. Expose Putin for the brutal thug that he is. And focus on the huge challenges at home: a still-weak economy, a huge overhaul of healthcare, a golden opportunity for immigration reform. That’s why he was elected. And his domestic legacy is at a pivotal point.


Some problems with an attack which are more likely: 

  1. Unilateralism: this attack further erodes the UN Charter, effectively moving us closer to, or even ushering in a world of power and agents, rather than norms.

I quite simply don’t have an argument counter to this. I think this is quite simply what is about to happen. And this is really where the thorniest part of the current situation lies, for me: it has forced me to finally acknowledge the fact of the decline of the UN monopoly on violence. It is a sad fact that we are living in a world of powers, not norms, as it is. The Security Council’s imbecilic and hypocritical structure is fundamentally flawed, ensuring that only crimes that do not serve the interests of the great powers are punished with efficacy.

I think a separate case needs to be made for Security Council reform by the General Assembly. But this is impossible to get done because of the idiotic article 109 of the UN Charter, which ensures that the great powers have veto right over changes to the structure of the UN as well. This is something which needs to get done to move towards an egalitarian and democratic world order.

2. Perception: an attack might damage the already-frayed view of the West in parts of the Muslim world. (Although it’s not completely impossible that a limited attack would be viewed as intervening on behalf of Muslim victims. I doubt that we’ll be so lucky.)

3. Blowback: You can’t rule out that terrorist attacks are going to come out of this, somehow.


Weighing lives and nations on the scales of reason is impossible to do. There’s something perverse about attempting utilitarian calculus about chaotic, unpredictable events on this scale. I don’t find my resolve getting stronger. But I do find that I’ve reasoned myself into thinking that strikes are a good idea. I find that it’s the most adequate way I see of not letting injustices go unpunished, not allowing norms to be violated, not letting dictators think they can get away with anything.

The more cost we can impose on future acts of atrocity, the better. Because even if we find it hard to do that kind of calculus, the trouble is that psychopathic mass murderers like Assad don’t. We need to put new constants into their equations. I think the near-certainty of a retaliatory strike from the world community would be a good place to start.

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