Dempsey, Hof and Cordesman
With Fred Hof and Tony Cordesman reacting to Chairman Dempsey’s pros and cons for Syria, it is difficult to add much from vacation in the Netherlands, where the descendants of people who fought horrible civil wars have created for themselves a strikingly peaceful and prosperous society. A Leidener’s greatest risk may be from bicycles, which are almost as dense at times in Hanoi.
That said, Tony and Fred come to somewhat different conclusions: Tony suggests a full-fledged no-fly zone over all of Syria while Fred favors the poor man’s version that nails as many airplanes and Scuds as possible before they take off. I lean more towards the poor man’s version, since America’s appetite for another Middle East war is clearly very limited. Tony’s assurance that “no one is advocating a serious US air campaign” is dissonant with his insistence on the strategic importance of intervening in Syria. In my view, a few days effort with standoff weapons might be doable, but more would quickly bring out big questions.
Even the poor man’s version has implications for American relations with Russia and China that could affect vital US interests in ensuring the Afghanistan withdrawal goes smoothly (some of the routes out depend on Moscow’s cooperation) and in achieving a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Those, in my view, are the primary reasons to date for President Obama’s hesitation.
Some of the questions concern costs, which is one subject both Fred and Tony ignore. Dempsey does not–he puts billion-dollar price tags on several of the options, clearly intending to dampen enthusiasm for them. The Pentagon is trying to say no without really saying it. The trouble, as Fred notes with an edge, is that Dempsey does not consider the implications of doing nothing more than we are already doing.
We are already up around $1 billion spent on humanitarian relief in Syria, which is more or less the order of magnitude of several of the military options. My guesstimate is that next year will cost $2 billion if we are, as Dempsey suggests we must, to protect Syria’s neighbors from the incredible burden of what might become 2 million refugees, plus million more displaced people and people in need inside Syria. It is rare that humanitarian relief expenditures get up into military orders of magnitude. When they do, they need to be weighed in the balance.
The long-term impact of moving such large numbers of people should also be a concern. While it may sound harsh, experience suggests that many will never return to Syria, or at least not to their original homes there. Some, like the Pilgrims who came to Leiden for a decade to escape oppression in Nottinghamshire (go figure!), will keep going on to new worlds and make vital contributions to them. Sweden has enjoyed the influx of Iraqis who fled after 2003. Many others may live stunted lives in refugee camps or as low-wage workers, refused (like many Palestinians) more permanent or elevated status by countries that see them as a threat for sectarian, ethnic or ideological reasons.
The implications for Syria are hard to predict, but we can be pretty sure pre-war Syria, which I enjoyed no end when I studied Arabic there, is already gone. The dictatorship will have to be far more oppressive to regain control of even part of the country. Ethnic and sectarian separation is proceeding apace. Islamism has gained among the Sunnis. Tensions between some Arabs and some Kurds are on the increase. The regime still claims to be non-sectarian, but no one believes it. Even a fully democratic regime will find it hard to bridge the social cleavages war is now opening.
So as the Americans consider their options, they also have to consider (as Fred suggests) the implications of doing no more than they are already doing: humanitarian relief, some military training, and some funding of opposition political and governance efforts. It isn’t working, and I know no one at this point who thinks it will.