Everything I Know About Syria (Pt. 1?)


I can find it on a map. (Source: CIA World Factbook)

I’m a little worried about all the folks who have strong opinions about what we should do in Syria who don’t seem to know much more about it than I do. So, I’m not going to try to tell you what we should do, but as a philosopher, what worries me before we even get to that worry is that the conversations about Syria often seem a bit confused. I suspect at least some of that may be on purpose, but I can’t prove anything so you didn’t hear it from me.

Bottom line up front: A lot of people are talking about Syria right now as if we’re going to go in to punish chemical weapons use. But the real interest seems to be in using that justification to drive a plan that actually aims to do more. It’s really hard to determine how to “punish” chemical weapons use appropriately, and if we try to do more without admitting it and hence doing more than just bombing, we’re likely to fail at everything on the table. Worse, I worry that there’s genuine conceptual confusion and blurring here among people making decisions (in particular, various ways of being “against Assad” being lumped together and both their motivations and strategies being treated as interchangeable).

First, I think it’s helpful to set some outside boundaries to keep any discussion of it in context.

As Yglesias points out (hey, when he’s right, he’s right), even if everything in Syria goes according to plan and swimmingly, military intervention in Syria is likely to be a very expensive way of helping people there. If all you care about is lives saved, it’s a serious challenge to ask why we don’t spend our money saving lives in contexts where, frankly, lives are easier to save.

There are all sorts of rejoinders possible here. As I myself have argued, it is quite morally plausible that it is more morally pressing to save people whose lives are being lost as a result of injustice than mere misfortune. And while it’s hard to assess this kind of outcome (which does not mean we shouldn’t try) someone could make the argument that a military intervention that stops a war significantly earlier than it would otherwise have stopped may save very many lives (especially when you count in the indirect costs of war, like disease and poverty) and so be more “cost-effective” than a quick calculation would show. That said, I think security folks should take it more seriously than we sometimes do that, if our principle really is “we have an obligation to save lives,” the burden of proof is often on military intervention to prove that it’s a better place to direct resources than other areas (when in actual policy fact, it’s often treated as if it’s the other way around).

The other is that we – “we” here meaning especially USians – need to avoid power fantasy. It may just be that there’s nothing we can feasibly do from here that gets everyone everything they want and a pony. “Syrians are still dying” is only a good rebuttal if we’re confident that there’s a course of action we take that can impact that.

That said, I think there are two questions that I wish some of the discussion would be clearer on. Both of them go to the broader question of how we would even define “success” here. One is, “what is the nature of our interest here,” which I’m going to leave aside for the moment, just because I need to do real work at some point today. The other is:

What is This Intervention About?

Punishing a violation of the chemical weapons “red line”

Off the bat, I’m just going to assume for the sake of this argument that the Assad regime did in fact use chemical weapons.

Right now, the official arguments in favor of US intervention in Syria seem to be focused on Assad’s chemical weapons use. This is, in fact, a violation of international law, and plausibly a serious moral violation. More serious than killing bunches of civilians with non-banned weapons? I don’t know (morally), but let’s at least grant that it’s a plausible reason to sit up and take notice.

But it’s less obvious than it may seem how bombing is related to this red line. The simplest theory is a purely retributivist one. Assad’s actions and those of his regime merit punishment and so they should be punished. If that’s our theory, it’s less clear why bombing military targets in the civil war is the right punishment. Difficult as it might be to actually do, this sounds like an argument in favor of apprehending and trying Assad (and perhaps other folks involved in the actual decision to use poison gas). And if you’re a pure retributivist, “it is hard to get proper retribution” is no more a reason for deviance than “punishing someone won’t deter anyone” is.

It seems particularly problematic to focus on retribution because most of the people dying from the bombing would be either civilians or regime combatants, not Assad and his inner circle. If we were going to war with Syria, you could argue that all combatants on the side of the regime are legitimate targets, and so they have no complaint if they are bombed to death, but punishing Assad is arguably not exactly going to war. And even if it’s legitimate to kill them, the idea that killing his combatants and Syrian civilians (even ones loyal to Assad) isĀ inherently a punishment for Assad relies on the very arguable assumption that Assad cares a whole lot about them.

So, I doubt that pure retribution is actually what most people have in mind, in this sense, when they talk about a need to intervene because Assad has crossed the chemical weapons red line.

The worry is that we now start walking up to the line of saying that the intervention is not about punishing the chemical weapons use, but about getting rid of Assad himself. And, politically if not morally, that then provokes the question, “if this is about Assad losing, why didn’t we get involved sooner?”

If we want to stay on the chemical weapons side of that red line, there are two ways we could do it.

First, we could try to say that this is not a punishment strategy at all, but a denial one. To back that up, we would have to carefully attack all and only targets that were directly involved with chemical weapons production and use. Yes, that might change the balance of power a bit, but maybe that’s a side effect. The plan would not be so much to make Assad pay for using them, but to ensure that they literally could not be used in the future. So, for instance, if Assad were to box up all the chemical weapons and mail them to a UN cantonment area tomorrow, we’d be done and walk away, no further need to get involved.

Second, we could say that the appropriate punishment is just that Assad’s chances of winning the civil war be lowered by X%. I’ll admit, this just seems weird to me as a punishment.

Third, we could say that the intervention isn’t about punishment or about denial but about deterrence. I’m going to leave aside the idea that it’s about deterring other potential chemical weapons-users, and just focus on Assad. The idea might be that we send him this message: “we will stay out of this, unless you use chemical weapons. Then we’ll take action to make you more likely to lose.”

This is structurally similar to an approach that has been used in the US against violent crime to some extent. Basically, while no one is legalizing drugs, to send a message to violent street organizations that the real focus is on the violence, not the drugs. For instance, under the Boston CeaseFire model, gang leaders were more or less straight-up told: if you peacefully deal drugs, all you have to worry about is normal narcotics enforcement, but if you are involved in violence we will throw the full weight of all our special federal money and enforcement resources against you.

This seems to work pretty well, but you really have to not care about the drugs that much. If Assad believes that there is no way that the US and its allies will let him remain in power, no matter what he does, then he will never believe that our intervention is keyed only to his chemical weapons use, and we won’t be able to specifically deter him from using them. Basically, he would need to believe that if he refrains from using them, we would largely leave him alone to win or lose. For better or worse, it’s pretty reasonable for him to be skeptical of that at this point.

What I suspect is in a lot of people’s heads, though, when they point at chemical weapons use in Syria, is not any of this. It’s something more like, “Assad used chemical weapons; this should prove to anyone who was doubting up until now that he doesn’t deserve to be in charge of Syria.”

Removing Assad from Power

This is more straightforward, as a goal! For some people, the motivation might be tied up to some extent with the use of chemical weapons, but they would not think it acceptable for Assad to remain in power, even if he never used chemical weapons.

Frankly, it seems unlikely to me that, were (per improbable) the UN team to say, “we have definitively determined that no chemical weapons were used,” most of the people I know or read who are hawkish on Syria would suddenly say, “I guess it’s all cool now, nevermind.” On the flip side, I doubt very many people were on the fence about this, but then changed their mind about whether or not Assad was a bad guy once chemical weapons were used.

If all we wanted to do was see Assad dead or deposed, it might not be that difficult. Here’s where “I am not a Syria expert” becomes important, but even without boots on the ground, we could massively arm rebels, carry out airstrikes, etc. and probably stand a decent chance of changing the tide.

The problem with this would be what the aftermath looked like. Libya, the closest analogy to this kind of plan, is a worrisome one. It’s hotly contested in the circles I run in whether Libya was “successful” (partly for reasons like these, where I don’t think everyone agrees on what “success” looks like), but I think I can pretty uncontroversially say that the situation in Libya right now, post-intervention, is far from ideal. The worry would be that, OK, you get rid of Assad, but now you’ve got someone else pretty bad (if not equally bad, but maybe even worse) in charge. I mean, Maliki and Karzai maybe clear the low bar of “better than the last guys,” but not by a whole lot.

One consistent approach would be to say, that if this is punishment to Assad and his regime for using chemical weapons, or even for broader crimes like attacking civilians, that doesn’t matter. When we throw a violent criminal in prison, maybe it’s not our job to worry about whether another violent criminal will take his place (until it comes time to punish the successor).

But it seems like most people who are hawkish on Syria want something more than that.

Protecting Civilians

This is a fraught one, and one where the empirical details are even more important. In fact, as we go up this scale, in general, deep knowledge of the nuances of the Syrian situation gets more and more important.

One way to go is to simply collapse this into a different option. We are protecting civilians by removing Assad, who is killing them. Or, we are protecting civilians from chemical weapons attacks.

If you want to focus in specifically on civilian protection, though, I think we’d have to be going about this in a very different way than we’re talking about going about it right now.

Now, I have a rep (Having a rep requires being known – Ed.) for being skeptical of the ability of militaries to protect civilians. But it doesn’t seem impossible for them to do some good. The intervention in Kosovo likely saved some lives, and there’s a reason why people retroactively appeal to things like India’s intervention in East Bengal and Vietnam’s overthrow of the Khmer Rouge to justify norms of humanitarian intervention. Heck, even France’s Operation Turquoise in Rwanda probably gets a worse rap than it deserves (saving civilians because you’re internationally embarrassed, or because they are the civilians aligned with your genocidal allies is still saving civilians).

But what’s currently being proposed most places isn’t like these operations. The most common comparison I hear is to Kosovo, but what’s important to keep in mind is that the aerial bombing campaign was followed up by a massive ground rebuilding project, involving not only a major NATO operation (KFOR) but one of the UN’s few full-on transitional administration missions (UNMIK). I’m pretty confident that no policy makers in the US are planning on deploying an Iraq- or Afghanistan-level US occupation force to try to rebuild things and protect civilians once the initial onslaught is blunted.

Because, keep in mind, it’s not as if Assad and chemical weapons are the only threats to civilians out there! If we imagined that we snapped our fingers and Assad disappeared from existence, civilians would still be under direct threats from continued social violence, ambiguous criminal/political violence, and getting caught up in the infighting between armed factions trying to assert control. They would also be under indirect threat from poverty, destroyed infrastructure (which bombing often makes worse), disease, and the like. So if what you care about is civilians don’t die rather than the much narrower Assad doesn’t kill civilians, it’s hard to imagine that you will accomplish your goal just through an aerial campaign, even if you believe that an aerial campaign was a key and successful part of the strategy in Kosovo. Yes, if you point out that ethnic cleansing accelerated during the bombing campaign, many people will rightly point out that there was then a return of large numbers of displaced after it was over; but it’s a hard thing to argue that the situation would have been perceived as safe enough for that without the presence of KFOR/UNMIK or something similar in the aftermath.

There may be answers to this, but the question for anyone pushing intervention as civilian protection should be, “what is the analogue to KFOR and UNMIK in the Syrian situation?”

There’s also, I think, a darker side to this. Like folks who say that we need to preserve “stability” in Syria, it’s not at all obvious that being against Assad is the way to go here. I wouldn’t particularly want to live in Assad’s Syria pre-civil-war, but the fact remains that I would stand a much lower chance of being killed there than in civil war Syria. Civil wars, even totally justified and understandable ones, are bad for your health and safety. In fact, the hard-nosed argument often is that we end war first and then worry about justice in a situation where fewer people are getting blown up.

By most of what I see, the balance of power in Syria is still somewhat favorable to Assad (and certainly would have been absent support to the rebels from a number of US allies). So if you really want to just make sure civilians are safe, then I think we need to take seriously the idea that we ought to throw our weight behind Assad. On the one hand, this is arguably morally odious (though it’s basically the deal we’ve been happy to accept in other places, most saliently Bahrain). On the other hand, if you don’t want to make that deal with the devil, maybe it’s not just civilian protection you care about…

Resolving the Conflict

Read this with an implied rider of something like, “in a just way,” or “and creating a more legitimate democracy there.”

Again, I suspect this is what many hawks have in mind as their goal. Not just that the civil war grinds on, but without poison gas, or that Assad loses and who cares what takes his place. At the very least, most seem to have in mind that “nothing could be worse than Assad” (of course, things could).

But the imagined ideal outcome is, maybe not Sweden, but some kind of human-rights-respecting (basically) democracy (basically).

Here we hit the point of maximal “you would need to know more about Syria than I do to figure out how to do this properly.” But, like protecting civilians, I think you can’t reasonably have this as your goal without countenancing some kind of much larger, longer-term intervention than people currently seem to be talking about.

And though the dark side of this is less dark than just going for civilian-protection-via-stability-under-anyone, there’s at least a way in which this pulls against current rhetoric. I suspect that the surest route to something like this would be a negotiated transition, where Assad keeps some power for a while and likely a rich and comfortable life somewhere forever. He’s a bad guy, but he also still has power and supporters, both within and without the country. And there are some bad guys on the side we USians like, too – those al-Qaeda linked brigades are supported by someone, and let’s not pretend the secularists are saints either (again, whether they hop the “better than Assad bar” only gets you so far). Some kind of managed transition probably requires all the UNMIK-like apparatus of protecting civilians in the aftermath of the war, plus currently-not-forthcoming political will from at least Russia and the US+allies to get the regime and the rebels (respectively) to agree to it, something neither seems to want to do.