The Strike on Syria – Justifiable as a Limited Action?

As has been made clear numerous times I am entirely opposed to overthrowing Assad’s government.

I will remain opposed until a good argument emerges for why a post-Assad Syria will not disintegrate into Islamic warlordism as Libya did after the fall of Gadhaffi; a fall  brought about by military action also justified on humanitarian grounds.  I have not seen any argument by the most anti-Assad partisans for why his fall would not be similarly disastrous, I myself cannot think of one, and I do not expect one to be made.

But what of limited actions comparable to last week’s missile strike to dissuade him from the liberal use of WMDs?  How justifiable would containment actions such as this be if they are occasional, narrow in scope, and by design fall short of being enough to bring down Assad?

Secretary of State Tillerson made the best defense for America’s attack on grounds of foreign policy realism.

In Tillerson’s view by using nerve gas Assad was creating bad precedents that could well be imitated by other rogue actors.  To get the point across that firing nerve gas cannot become a routine activity in international affairs Tillerson supported the air raid as a warning shot for Assad to break this bad habit of his.  But Tillerson, citing the recent example of Libya, does not see this attack as a prelude to driving Assad from power.  The warning shot was a warning and nothing more ambitious.

This realist argument of Tillerson’s is very strong and in keeping with the tradition of Hamiltonian foreign policy realism that is averse to humanitarian interventions to spread Democracy, and which instead prioritizes military operations that serve America’s strategic interests.

However, if the decision were mine I would not have approved the strike primarily because, as a result of this attack, American operations against ISIS in Syria are now made at least somewhat more complex than before.

The Syrian theater of operations is already dangerously Byzantine enough with forces from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the official Syrian government, and disparate rebel groups all maneuvering across Syria for power.  The chances Iran, Russia, Assad – or some other undesirable alliance of regional actors – will try to sabotage directly or indirectly our primary mission against ISIS have increased.

If our existing forces in Syria subsequently encounter more obstacles we will have to commit more military resources to get them back on offense.  This could be especially taxing if these problems occur at the same time we are organizing for military action against North Korea.  To minimize the potential for further complications we should accelerate our campaign against ISIS so that we will be out of Syria, or at least winding down our presence, by the time matters come to a head at the Korean Peninsula.

However, I must admit that although I myself would not have approved the attack against Assad for the reasons listed it is for me a very close call between firing a warning to Assad or ignoring him.

The reasons Tillerson made in favor of the attack are sound, logical, and serve the national interest enough for me to almost agree with it, and cannot be dismissed as easily as can proposals to forcibly remove Assad from power.


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