A US intervention in Syria is needed, but one of a different kind

Peter Kammerer argues for a US intervention in the Syrian crisis that involves neither drones nor air strikes, but humanitarian aid

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 3:37am

The US has been inventive when it comes to naming the operational phases of its wars. It initially called the global "war on terror" Operation Infinite Justice, the various phases of the Gulf War were known as Operation Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Sabre, and Afghanistan still goes by the moniker Enduring Freedom.

Standards slipped when it came to the war to topple Iraqi president Saddam Hussein; unimaginatively, it was referred to as Iraqi Freedom. That therefore puts pressure on Barack Obama's administration to do its creative best for its upcoming venture into Syria.

Let me suggest a name that is in keeping with the nature of the conflict: Operation Saving Face. That is, after all, the only reason that Obama can honestly give for taking his country into a war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A year ago he said that the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own people would cross a "red line" that the US would have no option other than to respond to. The US is in no doubt that such a violation has taken place even though the results of samples taken by a UN inspection team have yet to be made public.

What Obama actually said made no mention of a military response. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised," he said on August 20 last year. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation." The White House has done nothing to correct the media frenzy over the statement, leaving the administration no choice other than to respond forcefully to last month's apparent nerve gas attack in a Damascus suburb. For Obama to do nothing would make him and his country appear weak.

Rival China is following its well-trodden and saner line of non-intervention and diplomacy. Military intrusion of any sort - even the least costly that Obama insiders are discussing - involving missiles, no-fly zones and drones - will solve nothing and are guaranteed to complicate matters. The lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to name just the last three wars the US got involved in, prove the point.

But with the spectre of China's rise and growing influence, Obama has to do something; to continue to do nothing would drastically devalue American threats.

This is despite latest surveys showing that a majority of Americans do not want their country involved in another war. There are many good reasons why, uppermost being that there is no obvious outcome that will benefit the US, Syrians or the region. That is especially so for limited action. Targeted strikes and no-fly zones will not eliminate chemical weapons, push out Assad or give power to the rebels. Even if there is no retaliation or aircraft are not lost, greater involvement is unavoidable - there will be a clamour to finish a job left undone.

If Obama must insist on involvement, he should use American resources to improve the lives of Syrians affected by their civil war. Humanitarian aid for the two million refugees would be more helpful than the mayhem of missiles and bombs. It could be known as Operation Restore Faith.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post