Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wants to go to war in Syria — not with Syria, necessarily, but in Syria. And it’s not really war, although it involves weapons and American troops (in the air — Sen. Levin has been very explicit about “no boots on the ground,” as if American bombs are less war-ish than American infantry). He and Senators John McCain and Robert Menendez aren’t looking for victory, and they don’t want the military to remove Assad from power. But they’re pretty sure that weapons could be useful somehow, used by someone — maybe by barefoot Americans (no boots). All this appears in their letter to President Obama urging “American leadership” in Syria.
It is a stunning mess.
“We are concerned that conditions on the ground are deteriorating rapidly and significantly,” they write, cataloging the truly horrendous carnage, detailing government successes against the rebels, and placing the war in the context of American interests. But then they do not make the case for regional security based on ousting Assad, beating the Iranians, or decimating Hezb’allah. Instead, “we … urge you to take specific steps to change the military balance of power in Syria against the Assad regime and its foreign supporters.”
This suggests that the fighting will go on, but with different people doing larger shares of the killing. It is unclear why we or the Syrian civilians should prefer that.
Levin, McCain, and Menendez remind the president that “[t]he Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted with an overwhelming bipartisan majority to authorize lethal assistance to vetted opposition units in Syria. We urge you to take this essential step.” They “urge,” but they quickly acknowledge that what they urge is not enough. “The conflict in Syria is deteriorating so dramatically that providing arms to the opposition alone is unlikely to shift the military balance of power against Assad.”
So they urge a step the Foreign Relations Committee explicitly did not authorize — direct American military action. They provide a list. “We (i.e., the U.S. military) must also degrade Assad’s ability to use air power and ballistic missiles … includ[ing] the targeting of regime airfields, runways and aircraft on the ground, which would also limit Assad’s ability to transport and resupply his ground forces and those of his allies by air.”
These are acts of war against a government that has not attacked the United States or any country with which the U.S. has a defense pact or alliance. They would be acts in a war unauthorized by Congress. Perhaps the senators think that if the goal isn’t victory, it doesn’t count. This may be why our war-making is not actually intended to oust Assad — but rather to “create the military conditions in Syria for a favorable negotiated resolution to the conflict” and encourage him to negotiate his own demise. They add, “After all, Assad and his foreign allies are unlikely to engage in a serious effort to end the conflict diplomatically when they think they are succeeding militarily.”
The case could be made that it is less likely that Assad would sign his own death warrant when the opposition and its hired army (that would be we) are closer to his head, his family, and his tribe. But negotiations are the goal, say the senators. “As part of this military effort, we encourage you to take steps to support the Syrian political and military opposition in creating and defending safe zones inside Syria where they can better organize and unify their efforts.”
Arming rebels so the opposition can “create and defend safe zones,” and “creating and defending safe zones” in which the opposition can organize, are simply gradations of American military intervention. If we “take steps” for the former, we have to be prepared for the latter or be prepared to walk away. But the deeper your support of “allies” in their quest, the harder it is to abandon them. That’s the real “slippery slope,” and it has gotten us in trouble before.
Sens. Levin, McCain, and Menendez close with a call for U.S. “leadership” as “the only force that can make a meaningful difference in Syria.” It may be that American civilian leadership has been deficient. But then honesty demands that the trio acknowledge that by urging the arming of the rebel army and taking military action against the Syrian government to support that army, they are agitating for an American war in Syria.