Home/Daniel Larison/Attacking Syria Is Still a Terrible Idea

Attacking Syria Is Still a Terrible Idea

Nick Kristof has written another column calling for direct U.S. intervention in Syria:

Agreed, we shouldn’t dispatch ground forces to Syria or invest a trillion dollars. But why not, as many suggest, fire missiles from outside Syria to crater military runways and ground the Syrian Air Force?

One reason not to do that is that it isn’t legal for the U.S. to attack another state that hasn’t done anything to us or our treaty allies. The U.S. has neither the authority nor the right to do what Kristof wants to do. That’s not even the most important reason not to do this, but it is a pretty significant objection that is never addressed by advocates of “action.” It seems fairly telling that things like this never occur to supporters of this or that intervention. They tend to think that the burden of proof is on the people that don’t want their government to attack other countries, when the burden of proof is always on those that propose military action.

The practical problem with cratering runways is that it is at best a stopgap “solution.” As Marc Lynch observed three years ago, “Cratering runways might work for a few hours, but then Bashar al-Assad will repair them.” When that proves to be inadequate, it is just a matter of time before there will be demands to “do more,” and whatever that “more” ends up being will inevitably cost more and run greater risks than the advocates of intervention foresee. Advocates for military action in Syria never attempt to address the question, “Then what?” because they haven’t thought that far ahead.

Of course, cratering runways isn’t all that Kristof thinks the U.S. should do. He proposed creating “safe zones” in his previous column, and that does require sending in ground forces to protect them. Who will supply those forces? It will almost certainly be the U.S. that supplies most or all of them, and it would necessarily be an open-ended commitment. The risks of doing this would be considerable, as the soldiers protecting these “safe zones” would immediately be targets of every jihadist group in the country, and depending on where these zones are created run the risk of clashing with the Syrian government and its allies.

Kristof later allows that “U.S. support for Saudi bombing in Yemen is counterproductive,” which might be the understatement of the year. Even so, he seems to miss that that outside intervention in Yemen had the effect of greatly exacerbating the conflict and inflicting far more death and destruction on the country. At the same time, AQAP has taken advantage of the conflict to become much stronger than it was before the intervention. The question that advocates for Syrian intervention have had to answer for years is this: why is their proposed military action not going to make things in Syria worse in much the same way that intervention made them worse in Yemen (and in many other countries)? They have never had a serious answer for that question and still don’t.

The weakness of Kristof’s case for intervention is reflected in his constant recourse to a peculiar sort of whataboutism, asking whether it was wrong for Clinton to intervene in Kosovo and whether Obama was wrong to start bombing ISIS in Iraq in 2014. I happen to think the answer in both cases is yes, but even if military action was right in those other places and times it doesn’t mean that it has ever made sense to attack the Syrian government. It’s still a terrible idea, and nothing Kristof has said in the last week has changed that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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