WASHINGTON, August 22, 2013 —The use of chemical weapons is a repugnant war crime that only a deranged psychopath could possibly bring himself to do. If the current allegations that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons are true, this description undoubtedly applies.
But, contrary to almost all of the commentary, the use of chemical weapons in Syria is entirely irrelevant when it comes to U.S. military intervention. Here are three main reasons why:
1. Chemical Weapons Are No Worse Than Conventional Weapons
There have been an estimated 100,000 people killed in Syria’s civil war, almost all by conventional bombs and weapons. If that isn’t enough to mandate a U.S. intervention, then why is the alleged use of chemical weapons, killing a mere fraction of the total, enough to make intervention obligatory?
According to John Mueller at Foreign Affairs, “The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I,” mostly as a result of British propaganda against the Germans.
“As it happened,” Mueller writes, “chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal.”
Chemical weapons hold a special place in the international psyche as exceptionally horrible and indiscriminate. But the reasons against intervening in Syria are not altered by their use, especially since they represent a small fraction of the atrocities in Syria.
2. Chemical Weapons Use Doesn’t Improve Military Options
What are we supposed to do in response to chemical weapons use? The Pentagon says taking control of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles would require at least 75,000 U.S. troops invading Syria. Not even the most hawkish voices in Congress are advocating boots on the ground.
The reality of the Syrian civil war from the beginning has been that the U.S. doesn’t have any good military options. A no-fly zone is likely to put more civilians at risk and would not reliably reduce overall violence, as we saw in the Balkans. And bombing the chemical stockpiles would be about as bad as Assad unleashing them on his own targets.
Any “limited” mission to secure the stockpiles would lend itself to mission creep and eventually turn into regime change with no viable interim government to replace Assad’s. Then you have a power vacuum with disparate militias, many with links to al-Qaeda, fighting against the foreign military occupation. That’s a recipe for an Iraq-style disaster, with thousands of deaths on our side and hundreds of thousands on the Syrian side.
Arming the rebels presents other problems. First, it’s almost impossible to prevent jihadists from receiving U.S. weapons. Secondly, unless the Obama administration approves the delivery of heavy weapons, like anti-aircraft or anti-tank weapons, small arms deliveries to the disparate rebel factions wouldn’t tip the balance away from the Assad regime, and would just prolong the violence.
The alleged use of chemical weapons, while horrible and infuriating, doesn’t alter the military realities.
3. U.S. Intervention Is Worse Than Chemical Weapons Use
The potential for U.S. intervention to make the humanitarian and the strategic situation in Syria exponentially worse is very high.
“The use of force, especially in circumstances where ethnic and religious factors dominate is unlikely to produce predictable outcomes,” Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress in April, adding that “unintended consequences are the rule with military interventions of this sort.”
In the same Senate hearing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said “military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment.”
“American involvement,” wrote former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in May, “would simply mobilize the most extreme elements of [the rebels] against the U.S. and pose the danger that the conflict would spill over into the neighborhood and set Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon on fire.”
Intervention, Brzezinski added, “would simply make the situation worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically beneficial for the U.S. On the contrary, they would produce a more complex, undefined slide into the worst-case scenario.”
Over the past decade of waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have seen what reckless U.S. military intervention in the Middle East can bring: rivers of blood, trillions of dollars wasted, endless quagmires, and a worse outcome on the other end.
Polls have shown Americans are firmly opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war. If Americans let their emotional response to alleged chemical weapons use overcome their sensible aversion to war, it would be the first in a perilous sequence of tragedies.
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