You can bite the hook on the political debates about Syria right now if you really need to. You could take a hearty swing at the softball of hypocrisy that was President Trump’s statement about being moved emotionally and literally to action by the atrocities committed against the innocent people of Syria. All while he’s closed the door on those same innocents by denying them entry to America. You could take that pitch and swing away at the next one that confirms President Obama’s poor leadership and failure to act the last time Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, leaving the door open and welcoming him in for another go at it.
You could focus on those things. Maybe you should for a bit. After all, you’re not wrong. Neither side is. And it feels good to be right. So go ahead. Get it out of your system.
Maybe we can dive into a hearty debate about whether or not we should have launched Tomahawk land attack missiles into Syria. And whether or not those strikes were effective or worth the cost. We could spend some time on that this weekend. Maybe get a few folks to argue it out on a panel on cable news while we’re at it. Here’s a hint on that one though. If the broad spectrum of conventional war includes nothing on the left end and full blown occupation in service to putting down an insurgency on the right, a Tomahawk strike is slightly to the right of nothing. And as someone who participated in both ends of that in the last war, I feel fine about telling you that we should spend as little time as possible on whether or not we ought to have done the next strongest thing to nothing at all when someone violated international law and nerve gased his people.
So let’s move on. Because we could spend the time and energy on the things that are the easy discussions. The things we can pick clear sides and argue abstract theoretical outcomes to scenarios that won’t ever happen. So we can just keep filling up op-eds or talk panels without risk of ever being proven wrong.
Or we could ask a harder, better question.
What end do we seek in the Syrian Civil War?
Who wants to take a swing at that one?
What do we want out of a three sided Civil War in which we’ve attacked the two strongest players, (ISIS and Assad) and supported the failing one (moderate Assad opposition)? What do we need to happen in a civil war that borders Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel in a nation that’s been in armed conflict with all of them at some point over the last 50 years? And how does that change if our old Cold War nemesis Russia is staunchly backing the one faction that is doing his very best to make it impossible to support him by nerve gassing babies?
These are all hard questions, with lots of dependencies and variables. That’s what makes them hard. And important. Which is why it’s really important to answer the first one—what do we want out of the Syrian Civil War? Because that answer’s pretty simple. We want it to be over. And emerging from it we want a stable nation able to govern itself without having to resort to murdering its own people. And if you start there, and refuse to settle for any other outcome, some of the other questions start to fall in line.
So, how do we end the war and sustain the peace? Here’s a hard lesson I witnessed first-hand in Iraq. If a specific group within an ethnically or politically diverse nation was not able to ascend to power on their own, they probably won’t be able to keep it sufficiently if we hand it to them and leave. Which means that who we’ve been backing for the first three years of this war isn’t going to be able to govern peacefully after we leave. And since allowing it to fall into the hands of ISIS isn’t good for anyone, not even ISIS, we’re stuck with Assad or a replacement from his political faction until the fighting ends. Like it or not, if we need that first question to be answered the way we do, that’s the deal. And the last airstrikes don’t change that.
And how about Russia? Well, this one isn’t a great answer either. But we’re likely going to have to work with them to end the war. And since the horse they’re backing is the only one that has any shot at maintaining any control, then we’ve got limited options to demand anything else. If there’s any positive that could possibly come from the chemical attacks last week, it may just have been enough to open up some daylight between Assad and Putin. And maybe help broker in a change of power after we gain peace. Admittedly, that kind of positive logic is a dangerous assumption with either of those players.
Here’s where it’s going to be critical to resist the urge to work ourselves into a frenzy over a belief that the Trump administration is colluding with Russia to destroy America. As sensational as all the investigation has been, and as mind numbingly incompetent as people like Michael Flynn and Devin Nunes have been, the only thing that really matters is whether or not anyone from the Trump campaign had any knowledge of Russian interference in the election. Which has nothing to do with Syria and the Trump administration working with Russia to end a conflict that needs to end for the safety of mankind.
Which leaves some of us with one other hard pill to swallow as the stewards of effective 21st century democracy on earth. When it comes to Syria, we want Donald J. Trump and his administration to get it right. And that’s going to take some effort for some. I’ve been a vocal, consistent critic of Trump, his campaign and his administration. Unquestioningly more than any other figure in the modern American political landscape. But when it comes to Syria, I have to put it aside. Because not all things that look like the Syrian conflict end up casting the world into the calamity and destruction of global war. But the things that do that tend to look like Syria when they start. When multiple world powers have the opportunity to fight a proxy war through surrogates on the ground, the best thing that happens is it stays a proxy war and it ends quickly. The worst thing is the world as we know it gets destroyed. So we’re going to need a series of smart decisions and effective interaction with world leaders to land this plane.
And there’s only one pilot right now.
And it’s not changing before this war needs to end. So buckle up. It’s about to get really uncomfortable.