Will Washington Thump the Syrian Domino?

I recently attended a conference where a speaker commented that the Obama administration has seemingly become addicted to war and conflict, finding itself unable to turn down any opportunity to intervene militarily in a new country or region. I might have added that where an actual U.S. military presence is lacking, the White House frequently gives the green light to the CIA to unleash a new wave of covert actions using its own fleet of armed Predator drones, a surrogate form of warfare. The result is that the United States now has a military and intelligence-agency presence of some kind in 175 countries, by some estimates comprising over 1,000 bases and stations. It is actively engaged in combat operations on every continent, and it has a self-declared policy whereby armed intervention anywhere and at any time is appropriate if Washington feels “threatened.”

One might well think that Washington’s overseas footprint, ostensibly intended to protect the American people from “terrorism” at a cost approaching $1 trillion per year, would appear to be more than adequate, but there is some evidence to suggest that the White House is looking for still more dominoes to tip over. The next presidential election is only one year away, and nothing makes an incumbent look better than a military victory.

The protracted operation to depose Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, which cost “only $1.1 billion,” made it look as if a little intervention here and there could be both cost-effective and a good tonic for those who claim that Democrats are soft on security issues. It also raises the inevitable question: who is next for regime change? Iran is a perennial favorite and could be attacked at any time, but it would be a tough nut to crack, so it looks like the answer might be Syria, where the United States, Turkey, and a number of Gulf Arab states are already supporting and providing assistance to the opposition. Judging from comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that Assad has committed “brutality against unarmed citizens,” a program for regime change could well be impending. Clinton threatened, “The violence must stop, and he needs to step aside.”

And the war fever is bipartisan. Sen. John McCain, speaking in Jordan two weeks ago and again in Scottsdale, Ariz., at an Oct. 30 summit organized by the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that it is time to consider the military option to depose President Bashar al-Assad. Why would we want to do that? To protect the Syrian people, of course, from what he describes as “mass murder.” McCain even cited the example provided by Gadhafi’s fall, saying, “There is no moral distinction whatsoever between the case of Syria and that of Libya.” Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy struck the same note, calling on the White House to “take the lead in organizing international protection for the embattled Syrian people,” adding for good measure that Damascus is a threat to “international peace and security.”

And for those who like some weapons of mass destruction to seal the case, there are reports in the media about how Damascus might have been hiding a nuclear facility of some kind near the city of al-Hasakah. Unfortunately, the building in question was converted into a cotton-spinning plant around 2007 and is clearly not producing WMDs anymore, if it ever was. Even the Israeli media concedes that “It is not clear if centrifuges were ever installed at the complex or if the Syrians started uranium enrichment,” adding, “There is no indication that Syria is close to developing nuclear weapons. If the facility … was indeed intended for uranium production, those plans appear to have been abandoned.” So what happened there a number of years ago might never be known, but a good story is nevertheless a good story and the leak of the allegations is convenient, to say the least, as it further blackens Syria by suggesting that it is engaged in nuclear proliferation as well as genocide.

And then there is the tale of Syrian spying on dissidents in the United States. A federal judge in Virginia is preparing to hear the case of Syrian-born Mohamad Soueid of Leesburg, who was arrested on Oct. 11 and charged with “making false statements to federal agents, being an unregistered foreign agent, and making an illegal purchase of firearms.” What Soueid actually did was make videos and audio recordings of anti-regime Syrians demonstrating in Washington and sell them to the Syrian embassy. A Syrian opposition leader congratulated the FBI on the arrest, saying, “I want to thank the authorities for the arrest today and for ensuring our freedom of speech and liberty in America.” But since when is videoing in a public space a crime—  particularly as films of the demonstrations were also available on YouTube? And it is doubly ironic when a Syrian dissident congratulates the U.S. government’s defense of “freedom of speech and liberty” by arresting someone who was not doing anything illegal.

The same arguments about genocide, WMDs, and spying were used to justify “liberating” the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein and “liberating” the Libyan people from Moammar Gadhafi. As it turned out in both cases, allegations that the governments were slaughtering their own people, developing nuclear or other WMDs, and engaging in international terrorism were sometimes deliberately exaggerated to make the argument for intervention more effective.

The case for regime change in Libya was extremely weak, but it was good enough to pass muster in the United Nations Security Council, which authorized military action only to protect civilians. That will not happen again with Syria because China and Russia, which approved the Libyan operation, have stated openly that they were duped and never expected that the military role would be expanded willy-nilly to include the elimination of Gadhafi. So that means that another avenue will have to be explored regarding Syria, and it is quite likely to be exploitation of the language in the United Nations charter that enjoins member states to take action to halt genocide. If the United States gets its way, the tool to intervene will likely be NATO, another odd choice for an alliance that was originally formed to defend Western Europe from Soviet aggression. Or it might be some kind of arrangement with the Arab League, which has been increasing its pressure on Damascus.

I do not know what is going on in Syria, but neither does John McCain, any more than he knew what was going on in Libya and can predict what kind of government it will wind up with. According to some media reports, it does seem that the Assad regime has the support of most of the people, including the Christian minority, which fears a breakdown in law and order and a surge in fundamentalism such as has occurred in neighboring Iraq, leading to the virtual extinction of the ancient Chaldean Catholic community. As in Iraq and Libya, the stories of atrocities and deaths have been generally sourced to the opposition movement and are uncorroborated, meaning that at least some of them could be invented. But even if they are true, it is more important still to realize that the situation in Syria is not America’s business despite what Hillary Clinton and John McCain have been saying. Syria touches on no vital U.S. interest and does virtually no business with the United States, and if its government changes it will not have any negative impact on the American people.

The notion that the United States should be in the business of fixing other governments that we regard as dysfunctional is a slippery slope indeed, unconstitutional in terms of war powers as it is carried out by executive fiat and also prone to result in messy endings, as we have seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Humanitarian intervention is a policy that ultimately produces only ruin both for the target of the intervention and for the American people. Syria might indeed be as bad as McCain says it is, but it is not Washington’s problem.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.