Military Intervention in Syria Is the Problem, Not the Solution


(Syria-Frames-of-Freedom / Flickr)

A café. A stadium. A concert hall. One of the most horrifying things about the murderous attacks in Paris was the terrorists’ choice of targets.

They chose gathering places where people’s minds wander furthest from unhappy thoughts like war. And they struck on a Friday night, when many westerners take psychic refuge from the troubles of the working week.

The message was simple: Wherever you are, this war will find you.

The same could be said for the 43 Lebanese civilians murdered only the day before, when a bomb exploded in a crowded marketplace in Beirut. Or for the 224 vacationers who died when their Russian airliner blew up over Egypt a few weeks earlier.

The Islamic State, or ISIS, claimed responsibility for each of these atrocities. But that’s not the only thing they have in common. In fact, all of them occurred in countries whose governments — or, in Lebanon’s case, a powerful militia — have gotten involved in Syria.

Russia started bombing ISIS targets and other Syrian rebels last month. Hundreds of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have fought and died defending the Syrian regime. And France was the first country to join the Obama administration’s war on ISIS last year.

Indeed, scarcely a month before ISIS attacked the French capital, French planes werebombing the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, Syria — dropping bombs that “did not help them at all in the streets of Paris,” as a grim communiqué from the terrorist group gloated afterward.

These horrific attacks on civilians are part of a calculated effort to bring the war in Syria home to the other countries participating in it. And our bill could come due next.

Washington’s funneling millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to its proxies in Syria. It’s dispatching special forces to “advise” an array of the Islamic State’s enemies. And in an air war totally unauthorized by Congress, U.S. warplanes have launched thousands of strikes on alleged ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

But you can’t simply bomb extremism out of existence. And as governments from Moscow to Paris to Beirut are learning, you put your own people’s lives on the line when you try.

Military intervention has succeeded mightily in breaking things and killing people, but it’s done nothing to wind down the greatest factor fueling the rise of ISIS: Syria’s wider civil war. An international arms embargo and a deal between the Syrian regime and other rebel groups — jobs for diplomats, not drones — would go much further toward curtailing the threat of ISIS.

Yet France has responded to the carnage in Paris by pounding Raqqa with yet more air strikes — reportedly bombing medical clinics, a museum, and a stadium of its own, among other targets.

Leading U.S. presidential candidates aren’t proposing anything smarter.

Hillary Clinton declared that ISIS “must be destroyed” with “all of the tools at our disposal.” Ted Cruz called for “overwhelming air power” and condemned the Obama administration for having insufficient “tolerance for civilian casualties.” Ben Carson called for “boots on the ground,” while Donald Trump swore he’d “bomb the s— out of” ISIS-controlled oil fields and hand them over to ExxonMobil.

Virtually all GOP contenders, along with a gaggle of Republican governors, agreed that they’d close the door to Syrian refugees, too — as though they can evade the consequences of war by making life more miserable for the innocent people fleeing it.

None of this bravado makes me feel safer here in Washington, where ISIS threatened more Paris-style bloodshed in a recent video. When I imagine those cold-blooded killers running roughshod through the bars, restaurants, and concert halls my neighbors and I frequent, my stomach drops.

But that’s the lesson, isn’t it: When your government answers every problem in the world with military force, war begets war. And eventually there’s nowhere left to hide from it.

Peter Certo is the editor of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • jon

    so what do you propose…forgive and forget until they attack again? Let them take over syria? Let them continue to fund their war machine with the oil fields that they control? The US has pull out of the region because of Obamas policy which allowed ISIS to form…I will give you that we made the mess with Iraq but Withdrawing made it worse. Obama’s plan was basically to let them all kill each other. Problem is when you step back it allows them to train and grow with impunity. Our major advantage is that we are far away from the action…but that the refugee situation…because of course the ONLY way we could possibly help is to bring them here.

    • John Christopher sunol

      I do not agree: the United states needs to work in conjunction with other countries, European and Russian to invade and take over Syria by military force, then lock up all the murders and thugs in this war before it goes all over the world

    • certop

      our military interventions over the last decade and half have destabilized the entire region, allowed terrorism to proliferate, and completely failed to address the root political causes of the violence. i think the burden of proof for why this time should be any different falls squarely on the interventionists.

      there are other options — more rigorous efforts to cut off ISIS’ supply lines and finances, for one, alongside an international arms embargo and movement towards a broader peace deal in syria between assad and the other rebels and political reconciliation in iraq. they’re tall orders, but they’re more plausible to me than the groundhog’s day scenario we’ve been playing out in the region for the last 15 years or more. (and none of them preclude *someone* fighting ISIS — the kurds, the syrian rebels, and the regimes in iraq and syria have all been fighting them, among other factions.)

      to your last point: we created the mess, so it’s pretty damn callous to turn away refugees on the grounds that we’re worried about what *they’d* do to *our* country. not a single refugee has ever been convicted of terrorism in the u.s. we don’t need to take them all, but we should take a lot more, and we should do more to support the other countries that accept them. treating them like human beings will *prevent* terrorism.

  • John Christopher sunol

    I do not agree the only way to stop this war is for the world to move in by military might and take over Syria by force

    • certop

      okay then

    • robertwgordonesq

      . . .or we could stop the war by not supporting the separatist factions and stop meddeling in al-Assad’s domestic affairs.

      What if Iran, Venezuela, or Russia started supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement with weapons, training, and logistical support to help topple the U.S. Government in the name of “freedom”???

      Would that be OK?

  • robertwgordonesq

    Interesting. But what about the allegation that ISIS is funded and allowed to continue by American, Israeli, and Saudi interests so as to be a threat to Iran? Meaning, some of our “friends” and “allies” actually want ISIS to exist to help further political and imperial ambitions.

    Then there is the issue of the petro-dollar which seems to have gotten the United States involved with Iraq and Libya. That is, since Saddam and Gadhafi threatened the petro-dollar system by planning to accept Euros and or gold as payments for petroleum (instead of U.S. dollars) they threatened the demand for the U.S. dollars which meant Saddam and Gadhafi had to be eliminated. Thus the resultant “chaos” in the middle east was preferable to having relatively stable
    established governments who could really threaten the foundations of the American dollar’s artificial hegemony. Hence ISIS is a mere pittance compared to the real economic damage Saddam and Gadhafi could have done.

    Then there is the energy pipeline issue which seems to have prompted invasions into Afghanistan, and the Ukraine. Ukraine had to be ripped from Russia so as to isolate Russian Energy pipelines (and thus Russian influence) to Europe. Afghanistan and the Taliban needed eliminating so as to stop Iran’s energy pipeline to the East and boot the Taliban off of land needed for the American sponsored energy pipeline in the region.

    So without addressing these economic and political motives, it’s hard to see how America and Europe would not want to intervene militarily in the region.

    Thus, how do you propose alleviating these real (or perceived) economic and political threats to the satisfaction of the Americans, Europeans, Israelis, and Saudis without military intervention?????

    What is the alternative?

    • certop

      while i believe that the u.s. directly contributed to the rise of ISIS with its invasion of iraq and its irresponsible dispersement of arms to other parties in the region, i don’t personally subscribe to the theory that the group itself is an intentional u.s. creation. the history of u.s. espionage has provided plenty of material for the conspiracy theory grist mill, often with good reason, but in the absence of damning evidence i’m more apt to believe the problem is incompetence on a vast scale.

      to your other point, i absolutely agree: there is no justification for terrorism or murder of any kind. but we can’t just condemn it — we also need to ask why it happens. all i’m trying to suggest is that we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can play chess with people’s lives and not expect some kind of blowback.

      • robertwgordonesq

        I hear you. The blow back however seems to work in favor of imperialism as it gives the plausible excuse for more (not less) military intervention, reduced civil liberties, more military spending, etc., etc.

        That’s the plan, (i.e., to use blow back to further the original military designs).

        It would seem then the “real” solution would be for the citizens of Europe, America, et. al. to boycott Middle East petroleum and petroleum products. A hard sell, but that’s what has to be done.

        If OPEC can artificially lower the price of oil to put American oil production out of business and try to cripple Russia and Iran economically, then we “the people” can fight back in kind with our own economic leverage to choke the Saudis and ISIS from their money tree and not use their products.

        But are individual Americans disciplined enough to pull off such a boycott?

        Or do we simply wait for the next bombs to go off in our subways, streets, and night clubs?

        These are serious times.

      • Krishna Rao

        Do you really believe that.?. Do you really believe all those heavey weapons the iraqi army just ‘abandoned’ went to isis because the iraqi army ran away.?. Do you really believe the 50 tons of ammo the US army dropped went to the ‘rebel’.?. Do you really believe US trained and armed 50 ‘rebels’, and then they just happen to die or join isis.?. Come on man. You have to be really naive, or purposefully lying.

  • Bhaskar Menon

    I am constantly amazed at the short-term memory of “expert analysts.”

    To put the Paris attacks in proper perspective, we have to go back to the British manipulations in Egypt and Arabia at the beginning of the 20th Century and the Anglo-French effort after World War I to keep control of the Middle Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire.

    In Egypt the British helped found the Muslim Brotherhood in the colonized Suez Canal Zone. In Arabia, the Brits sponsored a 16-year old caravan robber operating out of Kuwait to found Saudi Arabia. Those initiatives were the thin end of European intervention in the Middle East.

    After WW I Britain and France gerrymandered the Arab world into its current national configurations. In every State they created, the two European countries engineered minority groups into power, guaranteeing unstable and easily controlled regimes. The Brits also helped create Israel, inflaming the entire region. All this is where the “blow-back” comes from.

    • robertwgordonesq

      So. . . all this conflict, manipulation, and invasion are simply the vestiges of colonialism? Meaning, the more things seem to change (quest for democracy and an Arab spring) the more they actually remain the same (Europe meddling in foreign lands for purely economic benefit at home)?

      • Bhaskar Menon

        I would hardly call anything the “vestiges of colonialism.” Britain and France have never given up their empires. Under cover of the Cold War they went underground in what is now politely referred to as the “black economy” of organized crime. That transformation included making the Muslim Brotherhood a fount of global terrorism. So no more viceroys, District Collectors and red coated armies; the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS and other mafias do the bloody work. All the imperial rulers have to do is arrange for the proceeds to be laundered through “tax havens” (some 70 at last count) and forwarded to the Hedge Funds that have made every stock market a gambling house.

    • certop

      all that’s relevant, of course, but hard to fit into a 600-word column when more proximate causes (the invasion of iraq, the syrian civil war, the intervention against ISIS, etc.) are at hand. thanks for adding them, nonetheless. check out this piece by conn hallinan for an example of what we put together when we had more space to go into depth:

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