War has consequences. Callous incompetence has consequences. The world is watching those consequences unfold in Syria today. No one can look at images of children dead from gas attacks and not be moved.
Let’s stipulate two things: First, there were never any easy American choices in Syria. Second, the Obama administration got virtually every hard choice wrong. Or, to be more precise, the choices it did make did nothing to either stop the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the new century or block our enemies and rivals, Iran and Russia, from exerting their will in Syria.
The result is the Syria we have today, a patchwork quilt of competing zones of control that in some ways looks more complicated than it is. Let’s make sense of the map above.
The red, government-controlled areas represent the most populated and economically consequential sections of the country. This is where Russia and Iran have asserted their will, and this is where Assad is spilling the blood of innocents to expand and maintain his grip on power. Yes, he’s still opposed by rebel groups, but they’ve been decimated, and many of the groups that remain are dominated by jihadists.
In the north, our Kurdish allies are on the move, but not against the regime — against ISIS. In other words, Assad has beaten his main foe and is leaving the United States, the Kurds, and assorted other allies to deal with our main foe, ISIS. After the battle for Raqqa, Syria is likely to be effectively partitioned, with American-backed forces controlling the north, the Russian-backed regime controlling the west, and some small forces still battling it out on the borders.
As we confront the Assad regime’s gas attack — which is just one of its countless violations of the law of war, and hardly its most deadly — we also have to confront this core reality: Our leading geopolitical rival — a traditional great power and a nuclear superpower — has quite obviously decided that the survival of a friendly regime in Damascus is a core national interest. It acted decisively while we dithered, and it has boots on the ground.
Thus, we now face a quandary. Retaliate against Syria so strongly that it truly punishes and weakens Assad, and you risk threatening Russia’s vital interests. Respond with a pinprick strike that Russia effectively “permits,” and you do nothing important. Assad has demonstrated that he cares little about his own casualties and may (like many other American enemies before him) actually feel emboldened after “surviving” an American strike.
Let me add one other thing. On this, the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, it’s worth noting that outside the ever-shrinking number of World War II veterans, this nation has no memory of what great-power conflict is like. Considering whether to strike a close Russian ally is not like considering whether to drone a terrorist camp in rural Pakistan or raid an al-Qaeda village in the Yemeni countryside. Even a single skirmish with a nation like Russia could inflict more American casualties in one day than, say, the last few years of combined military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean we should operate from a posture of fear and timidity but rather from one of sobriety and wisdom. It also means that if we choose to escalate our military operations — to directly strike where Russia has planted its flag — then the American people need to have their voice heard, through their elected representatives. We should not stumble our way into conflict. We should not lash out in anger and rage (no matter how justified) without carefully considering our strategy.
There are those who say, “Putin wouldn’t dare oppose us,” and they may well be right. But mights and maybes are thin assurances when the stakes are this high, and striking Assad is hardly our only option. We can follow through with our commitment to defeat ISIS, then help our allies consolidate control in the north, limiting Assad to his rump state in the west. We can facilitate the creation of safe zones where refugees can live free from fear of Assad’s gas and cluster bombs. And we can sanction both Russia and Iran for propping up a genocidal dictator, helping turn a short-term military victory into a longer-term economic quagmire for them.
Not one of those actions is particularly satisfying, and none of them provide an immediate answer to the present crisis, but a multitude of past mistakes leave America with few good options. Respond to Assad, yes, but strike him? Let’s take great care before we start a dangerous new war.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom