In a highly intelligent article posted at the Time magazine site this morning (http://tinyurl.com/nyore9m), Senator Rand Paul asks a series of questions about intervention in Syria. Here they are with my responses:
Senator Paul’s Question #1: “Bashar Assad is clearly not an American ally. But does his ouster encourage stability in the Middle East, or would his ouster actually encourage instability?”
Answer #1: It depends on his replacement. The upcoming congressional vote, though, is not about replacing him. It is not even entirely about Assad’s use of chemical weapons. We wouldn’t be having this vote if President Obama hadn’t declared a “red line” that Assad must not cross without asking, what if he crossed it? Now he has. If Mr. Obama were president of France, such words would not matter. But more than Syria is at stake when an American president makes an unequivocal statement. As is more common than not, there are today dozens of armed conflicts in process touching nearly every continent. Since 1945, none has grown into a general shooting war, in large part because of the United States’ global role. Now whether we follow through on the president’s statement is being taken as a sign of whether we remain the keystone in the structure of global peace. The president’s words committed us not to overthrowing Assad but to doing something – something substantial (a non-action action doesn’t count) — about Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It is in our broadest interest to follow through, but, as Senator Paul suggests, to keep in mind the limits, too.
Senator Paul’s Question #2: “Are the Islamic rebels our allies?”
Answer #2: Clearly not. But many of the rebels are not Islamicists. Last year, the governing coalition of rebel groups set as its goal a “democratic, civil, pluralistic, strong and stable state.” Since then, the Saudis have been playing a double game (now there’s a surprise), using money and other aid to build up the radical forces at the expense of the drafter of that statement. But keep in mind the composition of Syria. It is 70 percent Sunni. Many, perhaps most, of the Sunnis cannot stomach the Wahhai-types that the Saudis back. Meanwhile, under Assad and his father, the government has been a coalition of everyone else: Alawites (the Assad family’s group and a heretical offshoot of Shi’ite Islam), Shi’ites, Christians, Druze, Jews and any others not part of the Sunni majority. Many of those are looking for a safe exit from the coalition with the Assads. But is there one? As an Alawite man told a reporter recently, if only because of Assad’s bloody record, “I am sure there will be massacres [of Alawites]; the regime made us [everyone else’s] enemies over the past two years.”
Senator Paul’s Question #3: “Will they defend American interests?”
Answer #3: No. Like everyone else in the world, they will defend their own interests. But the question for us is different. It is, will following through on the president’s “red line” statement advance American interests?
Senator Paul Questions #4, 5, 6: Will they acknowledge Israel’s right to exist? Will they impose Shari‘a? Will they tolerate Christians, or will they pillage and destroy ancient Christian churches and people?”
Answers: Some will. Some won’t. Which is why we should keep in mind that this is not a two-part conflict but a three part one: 1) Assad and his allies funded and run by radical Iran versus 2) radical Sunnis and their radical Saudi backers versus 3) the rest. After the bombing stops and even now, our aid should go to building up the third group. Equally critical, we should place intense pressure on the Saudis to shift their weight to that group, too. This last is not an impossible goal or even, perhaps, a difficult one. But, behind the scenes, we need to engage more effectively than we have to date.
Too much of the current debate – including Senator Paul’s questioning — is running along terms that the weak and in policy making sloppy Obama administration has set. What should we do? Here is a list: 1) Launch a strike aimed at destroying as large a part of the Syrian chemical weapon capacity as possible; 2) the strike should also destroy as much of the Syrian air force as possible; 3) pressure the Saudis to redirect their aid from Sunni radicals in Syria to internal disruption in Iran; 4) work closely with the Israelis in determining which elements among the rebels to back and deliver substantial aid to them; and 5) turn our diplomacy to fostering a coalition of non-radical rebels and breakaways from the Assad coalition.