There is no question that the situation in Syria is a mess. Mismanagement of the situation under the previous presidential administration — threatening to intervene militarily, then backing down — certainly contributed to this mess, but it would have been quite messy enough without our help.

Now we have seen a tragic situation resulting from the release of chemical weapons, reportedly sarin gas, followed by a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase in retaliation for this incident — one for which blame has been assigned, but not conclusively proven, to Bashar al-Assad's government — along with calls to form a grand coalition to bring about regime change in Syria.


Complicating our deliberations is the fact that there are large swaths of rebel-held territory, including the area in which this chemical release occurred, which do not admit Western journalists. In other words, we have only the accounts of self-appointed spokesmen (plus whatever intelligence data may or may not exist), and possibly heavily edited or selective video, on which to base our thinking.

Now, I do not claim to have any special knowledge of Syria or the situation there. But I have an educated opinion, and I know several facts that back it up. My opinion is this: why on Earth would Assad take the risk of alienating the United States and many other governments and people worldwide by using sarin, when he's already winning, conventionally, and there is a peace conference in the works?

Closely linked to that is the known fact that Islamic militants — who make up a significant chunk of those fighting to overthrow him — have already and repeatedly, in many parts of the world, demonstrated themselves willing to accept and even invite civilian casualties when it's to their political benefit to do so. They know that use of chemical weapons invites international condemnation; pinning that on the Assad government is a good political move on their part.

The second fact is that Assad, whatever his faults — and I am not claiming the man is a saint, rather, he is a dictator and, by Western democratic standards, despot — is a secular, basically pro-Western, and certainly anti-Islamist/anti-jihadist, ruler in a part of the world that has few of those; and he protects the rights of women and members of minority religions, including Christianity. Again, this is in a part of the world where that is far from common.

None of which makes Assad a "good guy," necessarily: he is still an authoritarian and oppressive ruler, by Western standards. And conventional attacks by Syrian and allied Russian forces have killed exponentially more people than sarin gas. But the above considerations may — especially if it is ever conclusively determined that the sarin gas was in the possession of the rebels, as seems likely — make him less of a "bad guy" than some of those opposing him.

Finally, while nothing in that part of the world is certain, it is extremely likely that if Assad is overthrown, there will be a power vacuum into which will almost certainly step radical Muslim jihadists: ISIS, al-Qaeda or their ilk. Do we really want to turn Syria into yet another failed state in the Middle East, a region already oversupplied with them, and give terrorists yet another safe-haven? Not to mention unleash still more uncontrolled migration of refugees, actual and purported?

If that is our goal, we seem to be going about it in the right way.

Tom Harbold writes from Sykesville. Contact him at tharbold@qis.net.