Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 May 2013

Rx for Syria: Stopping Air Attacks on Civilians and Cities


[For a very recent post on where our human morality comes from, click here. It, too, has something to say about Syria, albeit indirectly. But the Syrian question is more pressing, to say the least.]

The time is long past to talk of civilian slaughter and displacement in Syria.

Estimates of civilian deaths in Syria’s civil war were approaching 70,000 in early April and no doubt exceed that number now. About a million were external refugees even in March, with “millions more displaced internally.” To say all this suffering is an unnecessary tragedy would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions.

Three things are holding us back from saving more Syrian civilians. First, we don’t want to arm, or even help, the wrong rebels. Various reports suggest that the strongest and best organized rebel fighters are jihadis. We don’t want to give our arms and support to, or to put our stamp on, a new Syrian government that might be a cousin of the Taliban. That’s understandable.

The second thing holding us back is the Russians. Syria is their client state and a big buyer of their arms and munitions. While both those facts are throwbacks to the last century, we don’t want to push the Russians too far.

Their current leaders have been helpful to us in our struggle with terrorists, even to the point of risking enraged Russian public opinion [search for “extraordinary step”]. They haven’t gotten nearly as much back from us in the so-called “reset” in relations since the Cold War’s end. We owe them—although few of us know it—and we can’t give them major offense.

Finally, we are worried about evidence. The President is right to go slow on the limited, small-scale use of sarin gas that has emerged in the news lately. Sarin gas is not hard to make, or to smuggle (in small quantities) from states that have it. These events could easily have been attempts to manipulate our intervention, or parts of a many-sided internecine struggle for which Assad is not responsible.

More to the point, we have a reputation to repair. We can never forget the devastation to our national credibility wreaked by our invasion of Iraq on false pretenses (Saddam’s alleged WMD). And we should never forget who wreaked it: Dubya.

American credibility in matters of life and death is priceless. It served us well in the Cuban Missile Crisis—the single most important event in human history [search for “hard wired”]. The President is right to fret over it and to worry that another mistake in Syria would only damage it further.

But nerve gas is not the only atrocity going on in Syria. Whatever the merits of Assad’s side of the war—and they seem scant—there is no excuse for wholesale killing of one’s own people.

Wasn’t that what the Nazis did in the Holocaust? After less than seventy years, it ill behooves the rest of the world, let alone us Yanks, to stand idly by while a new Holocaust and genocide in Syria tarnishes a human civilization still recovering slowly from the atrocities of World War II.

And then there’s the small matter of housing, shops, businesses, and hospitals. There is no excuse for such wanton destruction of urban habitat. All those displaced people will need somewhere to live (and to heal) when the civil war is finally over and they come home.

If Assad’s minions want supremacy that badly, let them fight for it like men, not by bombing and strafing unarmed civilians and empty buildings from the air. And if they want to extricate bands of rebels, let them do so the hard way, not by reducing a city or suburb to rubble in order to “save” it.

Viewed from this perspective, a viable policy to stop the Syrian Holocaust-genocide becomes clear. Use superior NATO air power to shoot down any Syrian plane attacking civilian targets or Syrian cities.

We don’t need to stop tanks, or even air attacks on rebel-captured tanks maneuvering outside cities. Brave foot soldiers with modern weapons and IEDs can face tanks, as Iraqis proved to our own dismay recently.

The Russians shouldn’t object to this, at least not too strongly. Whoever wins will need people and cities to rule. Empty desert and rubble don’t make much of a nation.

If NATO does this, any real “air war” likely will be short. After a few planes fall, Assad will likely take the rational course and ground most of them, reserving the remainder for emergencies, such as attacking rebel-captured tanks heading toward Damascus, or helping Assad, his family and backers flee. It is possible that the mere announcement of NATO policy will change the behavior of Assad’s air force and spare Syrian civilians and cities. We won’t know until we try.

In short, we don’t really need to “take sides” decisively in the civil war. Let’s just keep Assad’s forces from using one of the most glorious accomplishments of our species—controlled flight—to slaughter innocent civilians and destroy cities.

We could use our drones or ninjas to kill Assad and his inner circle personally, just as we did bin Laden. Both for stopping the slaughter and for imposing individual responsibility on the guilty, that would be lovely.

By waging the last century’s “total war” and genocide against his own people, Assad has proved himself a brutal throwback. For that, he and his inner circle deserve quick execution. As in bin Laden’s case, there is no question of his responsibility. He has not only admitted it; he has reveled in it and tried to justify it.

But our species is still in transition between a regime of bloody brute force for which so-called “legitimate” leaders often escape personal responsibility, to a regime of individual responsibility with the Nuremberg Trials as precedent. So maybe we have to let Assad go, for a while. But we don’t have to let so many innocent civilians die, so many more become refugees, and so much of Syria’s urban landscape become rubble.

We have the power. We have right, history and the precedent of Nuremberg on our side. We have let the slaughter go on far too long. The lives of innocent civilians and the rules of civilized behavior are worth a limited intervention, even if every last one of the rebels is not.

The longer we wait, the more helpless Syrians will become radicalized, and the more likely a jihadi victory will become. Neither the Russians nor we—nor the Syrian people—would benefit from that.

Nor will anyone benefit from the Israel’s military involvement, which could inflame the entire Middle East. In contrast, a limited NATO intervention, for the sole purposes of saving civilians and cities and enforcing minimum norms of civilized behavior, would likely evoke grudging acceptance from the entire Arab-Muslim world.

Let’s act.

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