Critics of U.S. military action in Syria are right to point out all the risks and uncertainties of missile strikes, and they have U.S. public opinion on their side.
But for those of you who oppose cruise missile strikes, what alternative do you favor?
It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month. Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar Assad steps down. So what do you propose other than that we wag our fingers as a government uses chemical weapons on its own people?
So far, we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more al-Qaida elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die. It’s admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let’s acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year.
A decade ago, I was aghast that so many liberals were backing the Iraq war. Today, I’m dismayed that so many liberals, disillusioned by Iraq, seem willing to let an average of 165 Syrians be killed daily rather than contemplate missile strikes that just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the number of dead in the civil war, is exasperated at Western doves who think they are taking a moral stance.
“Where have these people been the past two years?” the organization asks on its website. “What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence.”
In other words, how is being “pro-peace” in this case much different in effect from being “pro-Assad” and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?
To me, the central question isn’t, “What are the risks of cruise missile strikes on Syria?” I grant that those risks are considerable, from errant missiles to Hezbollah retaliation. It’s this: “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?”
Let’s be humble enough to acknowledge that we can’t be sure of the answer and that Syria will be bloody whatever we do. We Americans are often so self-absorbed as to think that what happens in Syria depends on us; in fact, it overwhelmingly depends on Syrians.
Yet on balance, while I applaud the general reluctance to reach for the military toolbox, it seems to me that, in this case, the humanitarian and strategic risks of inaction are greater. We’re on a trajectory that leads to accelerating casualties, increasing regional instability, growing strength of al-Qaida forces, and more chemical weapons usage.
Will a few days of cruise missile strikes make a difference? I received a mass email from a women’s group I admire, V-Day, calling on people to oppose military intervention because “such an action would simply bring about more violence and suffering. ... Experience shows us that military interventions harm innocent women, men and children.”
Really? Sure, sometimes they do, as in Iraq. But in both Bosnia and Kosovo, military intervention saved lives. The same was true in Mali and Sierra Leone. The truth is that there’s no glib or simple lesson from the past. We need to struggle, case by case, for an approach that fits each situation.
In Syria, it seems to me that cruise missile strikes might make a modest difference, by deterring further deployment of chemical weapons. Sarin nerve gas is of such limited usefulness to the Syrian army that it has taken two years to use it in a major way, and it’s plausible that we can deter Syria’s generals from employing it again if the price is high.
The Syrian government has also lately had the upper hand in fighting, and air strikes might make it more willing to negotiate toward a peace deal to end the war. I wouldn’t bet on it, but, in Bosnia, air strikes helped lead to the Dayton peace accord.
Missile strikes on Assad’s military airports might also degrade his ability to slaughter civilians. With fewer fighter aircraft, he may be less able to drop a napalmlike substance on a school, as his forces apparently did in Aleppo last month.
A brave BBC television crew filmed the burn victims, with clothes burned and skin peeling off their bodies, and interviewed an outraged witness who asked those opposed to military action: “You are calling for peace. What kind of peace are you calling for? Don’t you see this?”
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.
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