Drifting toward Damascus, the sequel

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

In 2013, I opened a column called “Drifting Toward Damascus” with this paragraph: “As I sit down to write a column about our current situation in Syria, I fail to discern any coherent foreign policy coming from my president’s administration. If you can, you are probably filling in the gaps with wishful thinking.” As I sit down to write another column about Syria, the same opening would suffice.

After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to murder more than 80 people, including kids, President Trump retaliated with a missile strike on a Syrian air base. The scenario was reminiscent of Assad’s previous use of WMDs during the previous administration. In 2013, Assad used Sarin gas to attack more than 1,000 Syrians. In doing so, he crossed President Obama’s infamous “red line” and the Obama Administration responded with huffy rhetoric.

Now it is 2017 with the same Assad but a different American president. When Assad used chemical weapons this time, Trump responded immediately with a punitive strike and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is signaling a new American goal of toppling the Assad regime. Yet the Trump Administration is promising to keep American forces out of Syria and Trump’s rhetorical “America first” isolationism was a major facet of his recent successful presidential campaign. Although a different president has brought us a different reaction, America still lacks a coherent Syrian policy.

The problem is that there are no good answers left for America in Syria. There was a time when direct American intervention could have yielded positive results, but that time has passed. The Syrian Civil War began with an uprising in the spring of 2011. As part of the socalled Arab Spring, secular pro-democracy protestors rose up to demand Assad’s resignation. When Assad refused to resign, as tyrants are wont to do, and launched a violent crackdown on the protestors, the protestors hardened their opposition and the fight for Syria was on.

The time for American intervention was 2011. If President Obama had used the power of the United States to support the secular pro-democracy opposition at that time, there might be a peaceful, secular, democratic Syria today. But speculation in alternate histories is the luxury of writers. The Syrian Civil War has evolved significantly since 2011 and America must deal with the present realities.

Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has descended into a sectarian war with no good guys for America to support. In battle with each other are Assad’s tyrannical government, radical Islamist Sunni rebels, Kurdish forces, Hezbollah, and of course, the Islamic State. According to the United Nations commission of inquiry, all of them have been engaging in horrific war crimes including murder, torture, slavery, using civilians as human shields, forced starvation, and the use of WMDs.

The Syrian Civil War has also taken on significant international importance as it pulled regional and world powers into the conflict. The deluge of refugees from Syria and surrounding areas has had a destabilizing effect on several Middle Eastern and European nations, putting pressure on the international community to intervene. As the war has devolved partially into a religious war between different Muslim sects, several Muslim countries have intervened to support their sides. Shia Iran and Lenanon are supporting Assad as Sunni Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others support rebel factions. Finally, Russia entered the war on the side of Assad as part of Vladimir Putin’s lifelong effort to reclaim Russia’s dominance on the world stage. As America retreated from the Middle East, Russia entered the chasm.

In deciding what America should do about Syria, two questions must be answered. The first question is, should America do anything? That is a broad question the answer of which depends on one’s valuation of the word “should.” There are some who believe that America should be the world’s conscience and act in the name of human rights. There are some who believe that American should only intervene if there is a direct American interest at stake. And there are some who believe that America should never do anything unless directly attacked.

In this case, there are no good guys to support, there are no direct American interests at stake and America has not been attacked. The only good reason for America to intervene in the Syrian Civil War is as a general policy to try to stabilize the region to quell the radicalization of people and the outflow of terror groups.

If one thinks America should intervene, then the second question to be answered is, what can America do? Short of a full scale invasion and occupation of Syria with all of the risks of igniting a global conflict with Russia and Iran, America’s options are very limited. And the American people have no appetite for such an earth-shattering endeavor.

America should stay out of the Syrian Civil War. There is little likelihood that American intervention could yield a positive outcome and the risk of embroiling our nation in another long, bloody, and expensive war is very high. America should do what we can to help the suffering, assist our allies, and protect American interests and American borders. No more. No less.