Sunday, June 23, 2013

Syria: Here Comes The Creep Again

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There’s a quote I heard somewhere — I can’t remember exactly where — that says, “Men tempt you with your vices; the devil tempts you with your virtues.” I think of that quote a lot when I think about the recent decision by President Obama to send military aid to Syria in addition to the humanitarian aid we’re already providing.

I know I said a couple of weeks ago that the Democrats were just doing their usual act, trying to prove they were all for another overseas military intervention just to keep the Republicans from calling them wimps.

After thinking about it, I’m willing to allow as how maybe, just maybe, both Republicans and Democrats really do think that some sort of intervention in Syria is the right thing to do because what’s going on there is horrible, Bashar el-Assad’s a brutal dictator, and helping the people of Syria out is a good and right and American act because we love to help the oppressed.

I still don’t think we should do it.

The Syrian conflict is as much a sectarian war as a political one. Syria is about 10-14 percent Christian, 10-14 percent Shiite Muslim, with most of the remainder being Sunni Muslims. Except that Assad and most of the elite (including about 70 percent of the career military) are Alawites, which is a branch of the Shiites. Sort of. Even some Shiites are suspicious of the Alawites for some of their more unorthodox beliefs. (This sort of thing is the reason I routinely mock people who talk about “Muslims” as if they were some huge monolithic organization. These people make the Baptists look unified.)

The Alawites were oppressed by the majority Sunnis until Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, rose to the power that he held with an iron fist for nearly 30 years. One of the reasons the government is fighting so hard, according to some observers, is the fear that the Alawites will be massacred by resentful Sunnis if the regime falls.

It would be a grim and bitter irony if the “oppressed” we spend the time arming turn around and become the oppressors again. It would not, however, be a huge surprise. In 2011, the uprising in the city of Homs left dozens dead, mostly Allawites, after which pro-government forces engaged in a series of drive-by shootings of civilians in Sunni neighborhoods. I hope you’re beginning to see why we should avoid this whole mess.

Saudi Arabia (ruled by Sunnis) is backing the rebels, while Iran (ruled by Shiites) backs the government. Meanwhile, one of the most powerful and best-equipped rebel groups is an al-Qaida affiliate called the al-Nusra Front. On the government side, we’ve got fighters trained by and loyal to the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah.

So we have militias, some of whom are associated with or loyal to al-Qaida, killing and being killed by troops of a government supported by Hezbollah. I’m tempted to say, “Where’s the downside?” — and would if it weren’t for all those poor civilians caught in the middle. Still, putting ourselves on one side or the other of a fight between Muslim sects is a recipe for disaster.

I’m somewhat comforted — but only somewhat — by President Obama’s statement in a televised interview with Charlie Rose that he’s not looking at sending in troops or Special Forces or even setting up the “no-fly” zones that people like Honorable John McCain are clamoring for. “If you set up a no-fly zone,” Obama noted, “you may not be actually solving the problem on the ground.” We’re “just” giving weapons to them, and apparently hoping that they don’t end up in the hands of people who’ll be happy to use them on us once the fighting in Syria is over (if indeed it ever is). And it’s nice to see that no one is (as yet) proposing to give man-portable anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels, since there’s a good chance that one or more of them could end up in the hands of some guy skulking at the end of an American runway, just waiting to bring down a 767 or an Airbus.

But limited assistance has a way of becoming less and less limited as time goes on and the demands of those we’re trying to help become greater. It’s called “mission creep,” and historical examples abound, from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan.

“We know what it’s like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through,” Obama told Rose. But I’m not completely sure I like the idea of slowly creeping our way into another Middle Eastern war any better, even if we do it with the best of intentions.

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