Friday, December 14, 2012

Obama Needs to Keep Brakes on US Syria Involvement

Reporting in today's NY Times (and elsewhere) that SecDef Leon Panetta has authorized the deployment of 400 US military personnel and two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey as a deterrent to a possible attack from Syria as that country's awful civil war continues.  Meanwhile, this post from Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker notes reports that US Special Forces may have been positioned in Jordan to move quickly into Syria to take control of chemical-weapons sites should the US feel that to be necessary.
But Anderson concludes his post with something we all ought to be mindful of:
For Assad, doing something to trigger a U.S. military intervention, even a limited one, might be a fatal misstep—or it could possibly be precisely what he needs to do to survive. The jihadists now fighting him might well turn their fire instead on the Americans, as they did before in Iraq.
For President Obama, U.S. military intervention has to be the least desirable of all possible actions—one with unforeseeable consequences, including the risk of becoming mired in a new, multi-sided Middle East conflict. For that reason, the threshold at which the U.S. might become more directly involved remains necessarily ambiguous, leaving the U.S. and Syria to test one another a little more closely all the time, in an old-fashioned, but very high-stakes game of chicken.
Whatever one's criticisms of the extent and nature of US involvement in Libya's civil war, Obama undoubtedly was wise in not inserting American boots on the ground.  As in Iraq, they would have been a magnet for jihadists from countries far and near.  The same considerations surely apply in Syria, where jihadists have already had a huge impact in the fighting.  But the Libyan situation wound down relatively quickly, and NATO air strikes could be launched with relative impunity.  The war in Syria, on the other hand, has stretched on for almost two years, and despite recent assessments that it has reached an "end-game" stage, it actually is likely to last much longer, even if Asad himself is driven from the capital in Damascus.  Syria has much better air defenses than did Libya; much of Asad's military and arsenal is still intact; and he has relatively powerful and reliable patrons in Russia and Iran.
That American troops have now been placed even closer to harm's way ought to concern us all.  If the carnage ramps up in Syria - and especially if it spills over even more into Lebanon and, quite possibly, Iraq - Obama will come under more pressure from some of the usual suspects in Congress to get America more into the fight.  And fresh off his success in forcing Susan Rice from the running for Hillary's soon-to-be-vacated SecState spot, Mr. McCain is going to be feeling both vindicated and invigorated. 

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