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The Case Against Another Intervention in Syria

The case for attacking the Syrian government remains as weak and unpersuasive as ever, and the reasons not to do it make much more sense [1]. Regardless, Trump appears to be seriously considering [2] launching an illegal attack on the Syrian government on the dubious grounds that “something should happen.” I have talked about the potential dangers of such an attack for years, so regular readers will already be very familiar with what I’m going to say, but I will offer a quick summary of why the attack shouldn’t happen.

The U.S. has no authority or right to strike at the Syrian government without U.N. authorization, and that authorization won’t be forthcoming. Despite the conceit that the U.S. is the world’s “policeman,” our government has no right to launch a war against another government because of its alleged war crimes. Possible strikes are being described as a punitive measure, but our government is not the world’s appointed executioner and our military should not be used for that purpose. Put simply, attacking the Syrian government would be illegal, which would be all the more ridiculous when the attack is being carried out ostensibly in the name of upholding international order.

The U.S. cannot pretend that it is enforcing any U.N. resolutions, and it is not acting in self-defense or the defense of a treaty ally. An attack on the Syrian government would also be difficult to justify in other terms. There is little likelihood that an attack would deter further use of chemical weapons, and it is more likely to help drag out and intensify the current conflict rather than hasten its end. If the ultimate goal is or becomes regime change, that will produce even greater evils than the ones the attack is supposed to prevent. Even if regime change is not the goal, it is difficult to see how killing more Syrians makes anything better. Joining in the carnage in Syria will not help the civilian population, but will most likely subject them to additional suffering. Insofar as an attack significantly weakens the regime, it would benefit only jihadists and their allies, and doing that makes no sense.

No U.S. interests are threatened by the Syrian government, and at present the Syrian government’s patrons are to some degree on the same side as our government in their hostility to ISIS. Attacking the Syrian government would be a boon to jihadists, the start of a new and unnecessary war for the U.S., possible direct confrontation with Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria, and a potentially disastrous provocation of a nuclear-armed major power. Trump is always emphasizing how the U.S. gets nothing from its foreign wars, so it bears repeating that the U.S. would most certainly get nothing from picking another fight in the region except increased costs and new enemies.

If Trump were half the realist or even the ‘Jacksonian’ that some of his supporters have claimed him to be, this intervention would not be under consideration, but then Trump is first and foremost a militarist and seems inclined to favor military options to the exclusion of everything else. If Trump were remotely serious about his “America first” rhetoric, the obvious lack of any threat to American interests would ensure that there would be no U.S. military action taken against Syria’s government, but his use of that phrase has always been opportunistic and it has never meant that he is interested in staying out of foreign wars or minding our own business.

Deeper intervention in Syria seemed to be something that Trump was unlikely to do as president based on what he said during the campaign, but he could never be trusted to do what he said and his foreign policy views have always been unformed (and uninformed) and can be easily changed. Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience and knowledge make him much more susceptible to bad advice, and his lack of any firm convictions means that he is more likely than most to yield to demands that he “do something” in response to an ongoing conflict.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "The Case Against Another Intervention in Syria"

#1 Comment By Viriato On April 6, 2017 @ 7:33 pm

You’re absolutely right, of course. But with Trump obessessing over his popularity and wanting to do away with the Putin puppet rumors, he’ll probably bomb Syria. And things will get a lot worse. This presidency is starting to look eerily similar to that of George W. Bush… I can’t say you didn’t warn us (not that I voted for Trump or that Clinton would have been much better)…

#2 Comment By the higher type of man On April 6, 2017 @ 8:13 pm

“If Trump were remotely serious about his “America first” rhetoric, the obvious lack of any threat to American interests would ensure that there would be no U.S. military action taken against Syria’s government,”

But the Establishment comprehensively redefines what “American interests” are for every new president.

Presidents under the naive impression that America core interests are the peace, safety, and prosperity of the United States, of the welfare of native born Americans.

But under the relentless tutelage of the Establishment, that childish, simplistic notion soon gives way to a higher understanding – the realization that America’s chief interest is the safety and prosperity of Israel, or of giant global corporations, or of people who want to immigrate here, or some persecuted foreign minority. When any of those things are threatened, American itself is threatened, and in their defense Americans must stand willing to pay, to sacrifice, to fight, and if need be to die.

Anything less is rank isolationism.

#3 Comment By Seth Owen On April 6, 2017 @ 8:35 pm

America’s core interest is the welfare of all American citizens, not just the native born ones. There is no legal or moral reason to differentiate between citizens based on the accident of birth. Any yahoo can be born. Naturalized citizens choose America, so I don’t see any logic in implying they don’t have equal claim on the general welfare.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 6, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

I have to wholeheartedly agree here.

Again, there is just is no case for US action. It’s entirely against the campaign rhetoric used by the current executive.

The case for chemical weapons attack and justification that the US is the sole legal arbiter of such issues, if accurate (I doubt that it is), is ludicrous on its face in my view.

#5 Comment By SteveM On April 6, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

Trump’s warped alternative space is even worse worse than Daniel Larison suggests:


Trump has devolved into an obvious catastrophe. He’s a shallow nitwit totally dependent for information and advice from the Neocon militarists he’s recruited into his inner circle.

If Trump does that without congressional approval, (full votes by both houses), I hope he’s impeached.

#6 Comment By Anonne On April 6, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

And not even 100 days in, we have our first war crime.

#7 Comment By Philippe Lemoine On April 7, 2017 @ 1:51 am

Thanks for this. I completely agree with your analysis, but unfortunately Trump already launched his attack… In case someone is interested, I wrote a very detailed [4], in which I examine the evidence about the recent chemical attack and compare the situation with what happened after the chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013. I argue that, in that previous case, the media narrative had rapidly unravelled and that, for that reason, we should be extremely prudent about the recent attack and not jump to conclusions. It’s more than 5,000 words long and I provide a source for every single factual claim I make. I really believe it’s the most through discussion of the allegations against Assad with respect to his alleged use of chemical weapons out there. Please share it if you thought it was interesting.

#8 Comment By Antiwar7 On April 7, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

What about the question of who’s responsible? That has not been cleared up at all.

Oh, we’ll get it after we get the evidence of Russian meddling in our elections. But that’s scheduled for after the lion lies down with the lamb.

#9 Comment By Michael Kenny On April 7, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

Trump needs a 9/11. Bush the Son was making an almighty mess of his presidency, although admittedly nothing like what Trump has done, and his presidency was saved by 9/11. Who can he attack? North Korea? Too dangerous. They’re a bunch of unpredictable loonies. China? Too well implanted. Nobody hates or fears China. And then there’s the creaking, rickety cold war dinosaur. This has nothing to do with Syria. It has to do with Trump trying to save his presidency. With “Russiagate” rumbling on and the potentially much more damaging “Mar-a-LagoGate” looming up on the horizon, Trump needs a diversion. By supporting Assad, Putin has painted himself into a corner in Syria and is, essentailly, a sitting duck. Russia is a perfect target! And Syria is the perfect place!