Why John Kerry wants airstrikes against Syria

Tuesday, shortly after I posted a column on Secretary of State John Kerry's push to have the White House approve U.S. strikes on Syrian airfields — and how Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey pushed back strongly against the idea — I heard from a number of people who support Kerry's stance and think that the Pentagon is being unnecessarily timid.

(I myself am one of the approximately three columnists in the U.S. who don't know exactly what President Barack Obama ought to do in Syria. On the one hand, the Syrian civil war represents a humanitarian nightmare and an acute strategic challenge; on the other, I don't think the U.S. is capable of mediating a Sunni-Shiite civil war, and so shouldn't try).

The Kerry camp's argument breaks down as follows:

1. Rwanda. The administration can't sit idly by as the civil war claims hundreds of victims a day. The official U.S. position is that we feel very bad about what happened in Rwanda in 1994, so we shouldn't let this sort of thing happen again (Samantha Power, Obama's nominee for United Nations ambassador, has popularized the idea that "Never Again," in practice, has meant only that, "Never again we will allow the Germans to kill the Jews in the 1940s.") It is true that while Syria civil war might not yet possess the characteristics of genocide, the humanitarian imperative here is profound.

2. For negotiations to work, the regime of Bashar al-Assad must feel that its existence is threatened. This might be the most important point, or at least the most immediately relevant one. Kerry wants upcoming peace talks in Geneva to work. In order for that to happen, he believes that the playing field in Syria must be leveled; in recent days, regime forces, which now include the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, have been swatting back the rebels with comparative ease. Airstrikes, and other U.S. measures, would provide the regime with the incentive to sit down and talk. There is no reason to talk compromise with the opposition when you are winning. This is true even for people who aren't psychopathic mass murderers.

3. Whether we like it or not, we are in a conflict with Iran, and our credibility is on the line. Obama seems eager to exit the Middle East. Most foreign policy experts, up to and including the secretary of state, believe that there is no hiding from its problems. The U.S. must play a leadership role in the Mideast or the vacuum left by its departure will be filled by radicals, of both the Shiite and Sunni varieties. It is true, as Dempsey has argued, that there is no exit strategy for Syria (in part because there's not much of an entrance strategy, either), but the U.S. will soon face even bigger problems in the region if it doesn't intervene now. Kerry understands the price of intervention. This is the lesson of Iraq. But he has also argued that there is a price to be paid for nonintervention.

4. We made a promise. President Obama threatened unspecified, but dire-sounding, action against Assad if he deployed chemical weapons (or even if he shifted them around). Assad has both moved chemical weapons and used them. U.S. intelligence estimates are that 150 people have been killed by them so far. When Obama made his promise, no one thought that his reaction to the use of chemical weapons would be: Let's send the rebels a bunch of rifles and ammunition. There was a general expectation of something more serious, and Kerry believes that the serious consequence of chemical weapons use should be airstrikes against regime airfields.

5. The Israelis did it, and so can we. Kerry himself, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't made this argument to the generals — knowing, I assume, that it would, if nothing else, irritate them like nothing else. But others in the interventionist camp have raised the issue. Israel, has struck at Syrian targets three times recently, using standoff weapons fired from over the border. Israel thinks that it made its point: There will be consequences if Syria transfers weapons and delivery systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Dempsey, in the White House situation room last week, argued that in order to launch an effective attack on regime targets, the U.S. would have to first suppress Syria's air-defense system, which would require at least 700 sorties. Interventionists tend to believe that the Pentagon — and the White House — are using this as an excuse for inaction.

6. The rebels aren't the lunatics the Pentagon believes them to be. The State Department has been working for some time with the more moderate leaders among the fractured and disputatious rebel alliance. It believes not only that it can do business with many of these leaders, but also that by doing business with them it will strengthen them. Several months ago, when I ducked across the Jordan-Syria border and met with some of the rebels, I took note of their long beards, a sign of religious intensity. The rebels were quick to tell me that they only grew beards because the more radical Islamists among them had the best weapons, and would only supply these weapons to like-minded rebels. In other words, the beards were simply a marketing tool, not an expression of sincere radicalism. If the more moderate among the rebels suddenly began receiving heavier weapons from the Americans, they would be empowered, and the Islamists marginalized.

One through line you will notice in all of this: a belief, on the part of Kerry and others, that passivity has a price. The Pentagon and the president, however, believe that they are being prudent, not passive.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

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