In response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria probably committed by the Assad regime, President Trump ordered cruise missile strikes as retaliation.
While these strikes were limited to a few military and chemical facilities, war hawks in Washington like Senator Lindsey Graham are pushing for an overthrow of Assad: “He’s a monster. He should be considered a war criminal and legitimate military target.”
Assad is a war criminal and monster, but to make the right decisions in Syria, Western leaders must compare his rule to the possible alternatives, and consider the costs of intervention. It might well be that deposing Assad is a good idea, but the costs in blood and treasure of doing so have been a total afterthought in the media.
There are two models that Western intervention could follow: Iraq and Libya. In Iraq, the U.S. invaded and toppled Saddam out of nowhere because we thought that he was building “weapons of mass destruction.” Once the government collapsed, an occupying army set up a new, nominally democratic one and fought an insurgency as part of “nation building.” In Libya, NATO intervened and toppled Gaddafi with airstrikes because he was targeting civilians to put down a rebellion that started as part of the Arab Spring. Once Gaddafi was gone, the West left governing to the rebel commanders.
There are benefits to both approaches: The first would better guarantee a democratic government, while the second would limit NATO casualties. However, any intervention would probably follow the second strategy. In 2015, at least 60 percent of the rebels were jihadists. This figure is likely higher now as the only remaining rebel stronghold is Idlib province in the northwest. Idlib is controlled by Tahrir Al-Sham, a jihadist group renamed from the Al-Nusra front, which started as Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. They aren’t the only rebels though: The Kurds, ISIS, and some democratic groups still hold scattered territory and are actively fighting each other along with the government. Thus, simply toppling Assad without an occupation would leave the civil war ongoing but greatly increase its scale as areas previously secured by the government became actively contested. As a result, there would need to be an Iraq-style occupation for several years before a democratic government could form.
In the time that it takes to both defeat Assad’s forces and defeat the conventional jihadist armies, there would be plenty of time for an insurgency to fester. In Iraq, this took a while because Saddam actively suppressed jihadists, so they could only organize in the chaos that the U.S. invasion brought; as a result, the insurgency only reached peak strength in 2006 and 2007. In Syria, this same chaos has been ongoing since 2011, and a U.S. invasion would only add fuel to the fire. Resistance to the new democratic government from jihadists would be even more intense than in Iraq because they wouldn’t need time to organize, and so hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to prop up the new regime. Those troops would need to stay in Syria indefinitely to stop the country from falling to the jihadist insurgency and becoming ISIS 2.0, just like in Afghanistan with the Taliban. This would leave thousands more American troops dead and several times that number with serious physical or psychological wounds, plus trillions more dollars spent.
Assad is a truly evil man, but the unintended consequences of killing him would almost certainly be worse than anything he could realistically do. The situation in Syria now is a mirror image to that in Iraq 15 years ago: The U.S. is on the verge of deposing and killing a brutal dictator to turn his country into a democracy. The unintended consequences of that action, deposing an evil regime that didn’t threaten the west, led directly to the creation of ISIS in Syria and to terror attacks in Europe and America.
Before stumbling into another absolute mess in the Middle East, we need to think seriously about those consequences. How will we ensure that our veterans are cared for when they come home? How will we deal with the inevitable flood of refugees whose homes are once again made into a warzone? How will we pay for the bombs, the tanks, and the planes that we send overseas, and for the infrastructure that we destroy? Might that money be better spent at home fixing our own infrastructure, like Flint’s water pipes?
And most importantly, before we start another endless and unnecessary war in the Middle East, we need to have a serious discussion about why using chemical warfare is so uniquely bad. At the same time that Assad ordered the chemical attack, the Saudis were using starvation as a strategy in Yemen and the Burmese were ethnically cleansing the Rohingya people. If we must be the world police, why only police part of the world?