The U.S. and Russia recently reached an agreement to “de-conflict” the airspace over Syria. This is an entirely sensible way to avoid any incidents and accidents between our forces and theirs, so naturally John McCain is apoplectic about it:

This ‘de-confliction’ agreement with Russia means that the United States will now be watching and moving out of the way while Russian aircraft, together with Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah ground forces, attack and kill brave young Syrians, many of whom our country has supported and encouraged to fight back against a brutal dictator who has slaughtered nearly 250,000 Syrians and driven half the population from their homes. This is not only self-defeating and harmful to our national interests; it is immoral.

McCain is bound to be annoyed by the agreement, because it represents another step away from the crazy “no-fly zone” option that he and other Syria hawks support. It is revealing that McCain objects so strenuously to an agreement that lessens the risks to U.S. pilots flying over Syria. I doubt many Americans would find that to be either immoral or harmful.

There has been immoral U.S. behavior in Syria, but this agreement isn’t it. Insofar as the U.S. has “supported and encouraged” Syrian proxies, it has created an absurd situation in which it has contributed to a conflict in which it has nothing at stake while setting up those proxies for failure. The U.S. has used proxies in Syria because the U.S. has so few interests that it doesn’t merit direct intervention, and in the end the U.S. isn’t going to come to their defense if it means exposing the U.S. to much greater risks.

Adam Elkus made some very compelling criticisms last week of the careless and irresponsible way that the U.S. has used proxies in Syria and elsewhere:

Finally, there is something very unjust and disturbing in the way in which the United States can encourage men to risk their lives under the false hope that Uncle Sam will be with them the whole way. In reality, we will write them off and abandon them to their fates as soon as supporting them becomes inconvenient. That is, unfortunately, the reality of international politics. If we are forced to choose between, say, keeping faith with the men we have backed in Syria and avoiding a confrontation with Russia, we will obviously not trigger World War III over a group of rebel fighters in the Middle East. But therein lies the problem. Is it right to encourage others to fight and die for us under false pretenses of U.S. support? More often than not, when following through on our promises to proxies poses far lesser challenges for us, we elect to let them burn instead of lending a helping hand. We have a long and sordid history of this, and our hapless Syrian pawns are only the latest to realize that the United States’ promises cannot be trusted.

The administration’s error in this case is not that they’re unwilling to risk war with Russia for the sake of ineffective proxies in a foreign civil war. The error was the decision to take sides in the Syrian conflict and to try to “shape” the outcome. The fact that the administration has done less of this than McCain would have liked is beside the point. Advocates for “arming the rebels” in Syria are all on the hook to some degree for creating a false expectation of greater U.S. support that was never going to be forthcoming.

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