September 11, 2013 | National Post

Bombing Syria Would Be Bound to Backfire

The case for bombing Syria comes in two flavours — left and right. But they boil down to the same bad argument.

Liberal interventionists echo Barack Obama’s declaration that the use of chemical weapons against innocents is a red line for civilized peoples. Conservative war hawks, on the other hand, are appalled at the sight of a rogue Middle Eastern dictator openly defying the American goliath.

For liberal interventionist John Kerry, a bombing campaign would be about enforcing respect for international law and humanitarian standards. For a leading neo-con such as Norman Podhoretz, a failure to act boldly against Syria undermines America’s longtime status as “being No. 1” in a uni-polar world. The two arguments are different. But both pro-war camps are united in one critical respect: They both view bombing as a means to restore moral order to the geopolitical universe.

There’s an abstract, almost postmodern feel to that project. No one pretends that a brief U.S. bombing campaign would bring down the Assad regime, or even change the course of the country’s civil war. That’s not the point, we are told. This is about “sending a message.”

Yes, the bombs themselves would be real (not least to the Syrians being obliterated by them). But the act of dropping them would be merely symbolic: a ritual show of Western power and values, after which Syrians can get on with the business of killing each other with conventional weaponry.

But a U.S. bombardment would fail to achieve even these airy goals. As Bill Clinton demonstrated with his aimless response to the African embassy attacks in 1998, any bombing campaign that lacks a concrete military purpose can be expected to end in anticlimax.

In fact, bombing Syrian regime targets would have the perverse effect of actually turning world attention awayfrom Bashar al-Assad’s reviled war tactics, and instead embroil the West in a 2003-style debate about whether America itself is a rogue state waging illegal war.

Once the smoke clears, Assad would appear in Damascus, perhaps clutching some bomb-injured babe or two, shouting his defiance at the imperialist West. Back in 2006, during the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon, his Hezbollah allies became expert in leading reporters on tours of damaged buildings, the rubble full of cinematically strewn dolls and children’s toys. Expect this same effective propaganda tactic from the Assad regime as soon as the first American bomb falls.

I don’t want to impugn the motives of those who advocate a bombing campaign. Photos of dead children lined up in makeshift Syrian morgues, victims of poison gas, wrench the heart. There arises a naturally felt moral urge to do something to punish those responsible. The headline on a recent Andrew Coyne column — “If Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not a reason to draw a line, then what is?” — summarizes this gut feeling.

But foreign policy shouldn’t be conducted on the level of the gut: Western leaders have to be ruthless about weighing costs and benefits. And bombing Syria doesn’t pass that test. It doesn’t come close.

This would be true even if U.S. bombs could turn the war against Assad at a stroke. Vicious brute though the Syrian dictator may be, the rebel ranks are full of equally murderous Sunni jihadis who’d be more than happy to put the country’s Shiites, Allawites and Christians to the sword if ever they took Damascus. In a war that effectively pits Hezbollah against al-Qaeda, why should the West help either side win, even indirectly? Our proper role in this conflict is on the fringes, in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, providing humanitarian assistance to those Syrians who have been brutalized and displaced.

Twenty-five years ago, in the chaotic final days of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein unleashed chemical weapons against Iraqi civilians in the town of Halabja and other parts of Kurdistan, killing many times more innocents as were gassed to death in last month’s sarin attack in the suburban Syrian region of Ghouta. The circumstances of the two gas attacks were somewhat similar: Both took place in Arab dictatorships where ruthless Baathist leaders from a minority sect were desperate to crush an internal rebellion with an iron fist.

Yet when one compares the response from the Western community, it’s night and day. Not only did the U.S. government play down Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks against his own citizens in the late 1980s, the State Department even instructed U.S. diplomats to spread the notion that Iran might have been responsible. British foreign affairs officials, meanwhile, decided that making a fuss about Saddam’s use of chemical weapons would “damage British interests” (which was credible, given that the West generally was backing Saddam as a counterweight to Iran). There was no push for Western intervention, either among politicians or the general public. To the extent Americans even took notice, the prevailing attitude was, to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin’s take on the Syrian civil war, “Let Allah sort it out.”

What changed in the last 25 years? Why did the U.S. ignore Halabja, but now has a president willing to go to war over Ghouta? Have Westerners developed a more acute conscientious streak thanks to the end of the Cold War and the rise of utopian doctrines such as Responsibility to Protect? Or perhaps it’s just that digital imaging and the Internet allow us to see the victims of foreign savagery in a more graphic and immediate way.

But there’s another factor, too: Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks against the Kurds took place before the era of widespread precision-guided, long-range tactical munitions. Had the United States decided to stage a humanitarian intervention against Saddam, Washington would have had to put its aviators in harm’s way. That sort of risk has a sobering effect on presidents and prime ministers. War from the air was then not just a game of buttons and joysticks conducted from computer terminals in Tampa.

It is a miracle of modern technology that standoff weaponry can rain death on dictators half a world away. But it also has turned many Westerners, including the most powerful man in the world, into punch-drunk foreign-policy moralists, championing remote-control interventions in wars in which the United States has no clear strategic interest, and where American bombs won’t do any good — except perhaps to salve our own guilty consciences.

Every innocent civilian who dies, by any means, anywhere around the world, is a small tragedy unto himself. But not all tragedies are ours to avenge.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.