Syria

I’ve already vented some of my opinions on Twitter, but I figured that for the record, it was worth stating on my blog how asinine I think the current push for war in Syria is. The number of innocents who are being slaughtered by both sides in this Civil War is tragic, but this is not a war the US should be getting into, especially on such shoddy intelligence. I saw the first movie in this series. It sucked horribly, and I’m not exactly interested in watching a crappy sequel, regardless of the change in actors.

And now back to your regular lack of blogging.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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27 Responses to Syria

  1. Justifying a war is like a rabbit whole of logic.. in the end it’s pretty easy to forget that you’re actually advocating the killing of human beings.

  2. Trent,
    Exactly.
    ~Jon

  3. The evidence is not that shoddy, this is not Iraq. The war is ongoing, and although there is no official US involvement, one must remember that it is no big secret that the CIA has played a big role since the start, from encouraging the rebellion to facilitating the supply of American weapons to the rebels. Just as the Libyan civil war was ended quickly thanks to international intervention, possibly saving thousands of lives from a potential Syrian-like conflict, so a foreign intervention in Syria could help end things quickly. To turn Trent’s comment on its head, justifying staying out of a war can also be full of twisted logic … in the end you’re advocating a scenario involving the continued killing of human beings so that you can keep your own hands free of blood.

  4. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Garrett,
    While I don’t want to dwell too long on politics before getting back to spacey stuff, your comment deserves at least some thoughtful response. You are right that inaction can sometimes carry a heavier price than action. I’m just not really convinced that this is one of those cases. You have a deep-rooted ethnic dispute going on, where many of the minorities know that ethnic cleansing is going to be the likely result if their side loses. You have a population that’s been radicalized from the violence being perpetrated on both sides. Assad is a brutal thug, but so are many of his enemies.

    Personally, I think if we get involved, the end result is going to be barely short of genocide when the Sunnis win. I wish I believed your hypothesis, and if I did, I might be more supportive of military action (if Congress actually bothers to actually man-up to its Constitutional duty to declare wars instead of pansying out and letting the President decide). But war is one of those things that always looks clean and simple at the start, and usually ends up getting a heck of a lot messier once you get into it. My guess is that in the end, our involvement isn’t going to make the world a better place, and may likely make things worse.

    That said, since we’re most likely going to get involved in Syria, we’ll get the opportunity to test your hypothesis. I hope for the sake of the innocents in Syria that you’re right, and I’m just being a bed-wetting pessimist.

    ~Jon

  5. DougSpace says:

    How about the end of the war not being a genocide perpetuated by the victors but new countries with borders not drawn on a British napkin but where groups live in different countries (Alawistan, Shiastan, Arab Syria, and a Christian Lebanon)? Like they say, “Good fences make for good neighbors”. Short of this you have people fighting to be in control of others.

  6. Thanks Jon for your very thoughtful response. Indeed, the outcome is unlikely to be pretty either way. I’m not all out in favour of an intervention, but only wished to argue that any intervention should be based on the facts behind this particular war and not on an ingrained fear of interventions since the Iraq mess.
    Ok, back to spacey stuff. Looking forward to an upcoming Delta IV Heavy launch and a Falcon 9 v1.1 wet dress rehearsal! Hopefully we’ll get to see some photos of the latter on the pad!

  7. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    US foreign policy has often been that the UN and the US (especially) are the guarantors against using things like chemical weapons (yes, I know about the Iraq-Iran war… shameful, but policy has changed since then). We long have implied that we have, if you will, an imperial responsibility to punish those who use chemical weapons especially against civilians. We can balk at that, or we can follow through with a few cruise missiles ala Lybia. The idea of attacking Syria now isn’t about making one side win (or, unfortunately, even about improving things for civilians directly), but about making the idea of chemical weapon use unattractive to anyone contemplating it. We need to demonstrate credibility.

    Boots on the ground would be a huge mistake, and I think everyone realizes that.

  8. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Jon, can you explain how this isn’t going to turn into a bloodbath, either way? From what I can tell, it already is. ~100,000 civilians dead. I don’t see what a few cruise missiles can do to get anywhere close to that directly, so the thesis of your argument must be that you expect the Assad regime to win (and win relatively soon) if we do nothing.

    And again, the idea is to demonstrate that chemical weapon use will get a near-immediate and harsh response (after we’ve verified the attack actually was perpetrated by who everyone says it is) against the perpetrators. Right now, the Assad regime is calling our bluff or they wouldn’t have used chemical weapons. In fact, I think they’re using chemical weapons exactly because our non-response would enormously demoralize the resistance. (“See? We used the big bad WMD against /civilians/ and the West did nothing but talk. You are alone, and we will squash you with whatever means we deem necessary.”)

  9. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    DougSpace,
    I’m no longer so convinced that the “just hack the countries up into countries that are less ethnically diverse” will solve as many problems as I used to think it would. Look at Israel and the Palestinian Authority for instance. While Israeli Arabs might get treated a little bit less well by the Israeli government than Israeli Jews, non-Israeli Arabs such as the Palestinians get treated drastically poorer. Once you’ve gotten rid of any semblance of shared nationality, you’ve removed one more barrier to just saying “hey those resources over there would benefit us, let’s go take them”. I mean, Israel is probably the most western country in the Middle East, and they still seem to quite often be playing by the “they aren’t our people so let’s beat them up and steal their stuff” rulebook of the rest of the Middle East.

    My worry is that by splitting Syria up into ethnically non-diverse mini-states like you suggest, it would just make it easier to perpetuate tribal rivalries. I think that the best thing for Syria and Egypt (though it’s probably nigh unto impossible for either at this point) would be establishing a minimalist government with strong protections for minorities, and which makes majoritarian rule very hard. The problem is that when you look at most democracies these days, they’ve pretty much degenerated into “loot-ocracies” where the rich bribe their way into favors, the poor try to rob the rich via the ballot-box, and everyone has their hands in everyone else’s pockets.

    In practice, my heart goes out to the poor people stuck in the middle of things there in Syria. They’re pretty much hosed regardless of what the US does or doesn’t do.

    ~Jon

  10. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Garrett,
    I guess for me, while I agree that one should look at the situation, I’ve seen enough situations from history that have started with the best of intentions and then gone horribly wrong that I start from a position of that intervention is usually a very dumb, counter-productive idea, and that the case-by-case evidence has to be really strong to justify the risk of making things worse.
    To use a horrible analogy, I see military intervention as being kind of like a half-drunk doctor trying to operate on a patient using woodworking tools. While theoretically, a perfectly handled operation might be beneficial to the patient, the risks of things going horribly wrong is so high, that its hard to justify the operation unless it’s really, really, really darned important.

    ~Jon

  11. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,
    Responding to your first post…This isn’t just a spanking, and we aren’t their mom.

    Firing cruise missiles into a country is likely going to kill (directly or indirectly) a ton of people, most of whom had nothing to do with the choice to use chemical weapons. I don’t believe in killing large numbers of people and risking making things even worse just to “make a point”, and I don’t think God made America into his sword of righteous vengeance.

    ~Jon

  12. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,
    Regarding your second post…I guess what I’m saying is that I see no way that killing a bunch more people with our cruise missiles is likely going to make anything better. Assad knows he’s battling for his life at this point, so I don’t really expect a “show of force” (ie murdering a bunch of people remotely to make a point, many of whom had nothing to do with the original crime) to change his calculus that much. I have no idea who will win this one–both sides are screwed if the other one wins, so I expect this to get really bloody. The problem is that once we’ve gotten involved, I don’t think it’ll be that clean or easy to get uninvolved.

    In a theoretically simple world, where there are never unintended or unseen consequences to your actions, you might have a point. But in the real world, once we’ve gotten involved with Cruise Missiles, I’d be really surprised if we didn’t get sucked into things even worse.

    I’m also really not a fan of continuing to set precedents of allowing Presidents to start wars without Congress declaring them or even giving them some sort of AUMF fig leaf. We’ve already had too many recent presidents who think they’re four year elected God-Kings of the US. I’m against anything that reinforces that delusion–the odds of things ending well for the US if we continue down that path are poor.

    Lastly, there’s this whole thing about not getting involved in land wars in Asia that seems to keep going over peoples heads…

    ~Jon

  13. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    “…I don’t think God made America into his sword of righteous vengeance.”

    That’s essentially what the West has implied for many years, though, sort of the backup to our diplomacy. There’s literally nothing else to stop Assad from just using up all his chemical weapons until his foes (and much of his, shall we say, subjects) are dead. The Middle East still has plenty of strongmen, as does Africa. There will be more wars in the future. Do we want to encourage chemical weapons to be deployed in those conflicts?

    Do we allow chemical weapon use to be a viable option for any strongman looking to quell resistance? Heck, what about nuclear weapons? Is there any point where intervention should be an option?

    -Chris

  14. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    I’m in support of the UN investigation concluding before anything happens. I’m in support of Congressional support /first/. I’m in support of cruise missiles to destroy related facilities. I’m not in favor of ensuring that Assad is beaten.

    Significant chemical weapons use cannot be a viable option for strongmen.

  15. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,
    I just don’t think this “show of force” is going to achieve what you think it will. At best we’ll be able to kill a bunch of people, and partially degrade his ability to use Chemical Weapons. But at the end of the day, he still knows he’s going to get a “Mussolini Neck Tie” if he loses this one, or if he has to step down. Even if the US spanks him now, if his choices are “use chemical weapons again” or “risk dying” do you really think this exercise is going to change his calculus? Do you really think if survival is on the line that it’s going to change the calculus of other thugs down the road?

    What do you think will happen if we do the strikes, and then six months later things get desperate for Assad and he decides to use CW again?

    I see a pointless exercise with almost no upside, tons of downside, and lots of wasted human blood on *our* hands.

    ~Jon

  16. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Foreign intervention may be the only thing that would mean the end of Assad. His situation is not so terribly desperate, and if it were, he certainly would know chemical weapons couldn’t stop the inevitable.

    He did this because he called our bluff and wishes to demoralize his opponents. If we do nothing, there’s no reason for him NOT to use chemical weapons again. If we have a response, he knows if he continues CW use that we will respond again, possibly with an attempt at a decapitation strike. So his choices are not “use chemical weapons again” or “risk dying,” they are “use chemical weapons” or “not be tomahawked.”

    The response is not about Syria, it’s about how the world tolerates clear CW use.

  17. Chris,
    I doubt either of us is going to convince the other to change his mind in this case, so in order to forestall a bunch of wasted comments arguing, how about this deal:

    One year from now, if Obama goes through with the cruise missile attacks, and:
    1- The air-strikes don’t lead to the US getting sucked any further into Syria (ie follow-on air-strikes, more weapons or training support to the opposition, no-fly-zones, boots on the ground, etc),
    2- Neither side in Syria are accused of using chemical weapons again (ie the deterrence threat worked),
    3- Less than 100 civilians get killed in our missile strikes,

    I’ll buy you a nice dinner at the next conference we’re at together. If one or more of those conditions don’t hold (ie the deterrence doesn’t work, we get sucked into it worse, or lots of innocents die), you can buy me dinner.

    Deal? Not trying to be insensitive in a situation where lives are on the line, but we both know that Obama’s going to do what you want him to do, but this at least gets you to decide how strongly you believe your opinions.

    ~Jon

  18. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Hm, well I think the possibility of further intervention (especially more air strikes) is pretty likely, and we’ve already done some really limited support for the opposition, and a no-fly zone is clearly a possibility (see Lybia), so I don’t think I can say with confidence that they probably won’t happen (and besides, I’m /certain/ that someone will again be accused of CW use before this is over with). But not boots on the ground. I will buy you a beer^H^H^H^Hcoffee^H^H^H^H^H^Hsoda (hey, I’m poor!) if that happens (and if it doesn’t, I’ll still buy you one), but I see that doesn’t really meet your bar.

    And really, Obama may have made a mistake in creating a “red line” because it forces the US to strike if it’s crossed or look powerless if it doesn’t, but right now, the US’s backed into a corner. If we don’t act, US foreign policy is essentially defanged (as is the international position on CW) in the future until we once again decide to follow through on semi-diplomatic threats (not something I think we should do often). Limiting Assad’s ability to kill civilians right now is probably the best option looking forward, IMHO, as it sets a precedent that CW use will not be tolerated. I’ll leave my opinion right there. I’m also not terribly hopeful for a good outcome for any of this.

    But if you’re in Minneapolis (at the same time I am), I’d love to have you over for dinner or out for breakfast, but right now I’m on a grad school budget and probably won’t be going to very many conferences… Unless you’re hiring? 😉

  19. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    For the record, I was never a peace dove liberal who thought Obama would be the Ghandi of Presidents. Foreign policy-wise, he’s like a more compentent George Bush who is a little more willing to work with the international community. (Another way of saying that basically all US Presidents are about the same because they have pretty much the same constraints.)

  20. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,
    Here’s a counteroffer. I’m pretty confident that this is going to go south a lot worse than war supporters think. So what about these conditions (assuming Obama goes through with the strike):

    If two years from now:
    1- There are US military units “on the ground” in Syria
    and
    2- Syria has been caught using CW again

    You buy or make me a nice dinner next time I’m in town. If either of those ends up not being true (ie if deterrence works *or* if things don’t end up getting much worse), I buy you a nice dinner.

    Sound fair?

    ~Jon

  21. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Okay, deal.
    -Chris

  22. Andrew W says:

    Chemical weapons were banned because they gave war a bad name.

  23. Mike says:

    Hi, Jon! Welcome back to your blog!

    I don’t see how military action serves American strategic interests, with one exception. The President drew a line in the sand, and if he now doesn’t act when that line is crossed, all the other lines in the sand devalue.

    That said, what are the follow-on consequences and their costs, for such a benefit? I don’t know, and nobody else does, either, but my estimate is that they costs exceed the benefit.

    PS: I was once moved by the humanitarian argument. When I saw how quickly its proponents abandoned it in the 2004/5 timeframe, I realized that it was merely another political marketing pitch, to be trotted out and retired as the winds of domestic politics blew. Sad, but true.

  24. Warren Platts says:

    I hate to be the one to say this, but probably the only solution is a full-scale invasion. And do not get me wrong: I am not “for” war. However, in this case, a full-up invasion is the least bad, most moral option:

    1. If we do nothing, Assad will continue to use sarin gas and will win in the end.

    2. The “shot across the bow” (also known as the Let Allah Sort Them Out) strategy designed not to tip the balance will only prolong the stalemate. Note that 100,000 people have already been killed: this is in two years in a country with 2/3 the population of Iraq. About the same number of people were killed in Iraq over 10 years. So as bad as Iraq was, Syria is a lot worse. Promoting the stalemate as a “strategy” will only ensure that another 100,000 or more get killed.

    3. Substantive air strikes that would seriously hurt the Assad regime will only ensure that Al Qaeda and Muslim B’hood islamists take over, with the likely result that they will lay their hands on the WMDs left over by the Assad regime. These are people who would not think twice about releasing a sarin bomb in downtown Boston or New York. Also, they will form a safe haven for Al Qaeda to wreck havoc in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

    4. We go in with about 4 or 5 mechanized infantry combat brigade teams. Only option 4 will prevent outcomes 1-3. It will actually cost fewer lives than any other option–although of course it will cost more American and French lives than would simply washing our hands of the matter like Pontius Pilate. But if you volunteer for the Army these days, you gotta know what you’re getting into….

    It won’t be any fun, but it can be done. Syria is not Iraq. It’s a smaller population, and there isn’t a Pakistan or Iran on the border. After 10 years of wars, we should know how to wage a counter-insurgency by now. Number one, you go in knowing you’re not going to be greeted with flowers and candy, (2) as soon as organized resistance is crushed, you go into protect the population mode, (3) don’t go overboard with the de-Baathification, and maintain a continuity of civil institutions as much as possible. If we could stop the main fighting asap, that would build up a lot of good will at first. Also, since we don’t really have a dog in this fight either way, we would be perceived as fair power brokers. Set up elections asap, get an army and police force that represents the whole country, and then get the heck out.

  25. Dick Eagleson says:

    Someone observed awhile back that Obama shows a near genius for finding the “sour spot” in every issue he addresses, pissing off nominal friends and enemies in equal measure, though for reasons that differ in detail. Syria is just one more example.

    The only reason the issue arises is Obama’s past loose talk about “red lines”. He made his brag and now he’s got to back it.

    Or does he? Myself, I think he’s looking for a way out of backing his brag that gives him plausible deniability. That’s what this last-minute punt to Congress is all about. Obama has calculated the politics of this authorization thing and figures that at least one house of Congress will downcheck him on it; probably both. At that point he can express public regret and put the “red line” genie back in the bottle. Sort of.

    Obama’s ineptitude as President and U.S. domestic politics aside, it remains the case that rampaging radical Islam remains a threat and will have to be dealt with. Mr. Platts has nicely explained the visit-to-a-hooker model of foreign intervention – a quick in-and-out followed by an affectionate pat on the bum and a quick and discreet exit. The problem is, it doesn’t work. That’s what Obama did in Iraq and matters deteriorate daily. It’s what he’s also planning for Afghanistan and the same will occur there. Syria would be no different if given comparable treatment.

    We would do well to look to our own history. We “fixed” Germany and Japan after WWII by not doing a quick bug-out. The U.S. ruled both places via military governors for roughly a decade each before letting the locals get back in the driver’s seats. Both were, pre-war, modern industrial nations with well-educated, literate populations. Neither condition applies in any majority-Islamic country. Hence, the minimum effective interval of outside adult supervision required by any Islamic country would be well beyond the decade we devoted to Germany and Japan.

    We screwed up in Afghanistan by not running the place ourselves for long enough to accomplish the social and cultural transformations needed to end the immemorial tribal barbarism that has prevailed there. We gave Iraq back to its benighted political class after roughly a year of feckless boobery by a civilian regent who was hopelessly out of his depth. If American generals were still running Afghanistan and Iraq, things would be much quieter in the Islamic world generally.

    In short, if you really want to fix things in the Islamic world, be prepared to: (1) spend some time at it, (2) kill them all and let Allah sort them out or, (3) be prepared to endure endless small – and occasional large – atrocities committed against our “infidel” selves. Those are the three choices.

    As an ex-colony, the U.S. lacks enthusiasm for prophylactic imperialism. We could borrow pages from our British and French friends and build our own versions of the late Colonial Service and the still-extant Foreign Legion, but this seems unlikely.

    We also, as a nation, lack the insane hatred and xenophobia that lie at the heart of both tribal barbarism as a social order and Islam as a religion. We are a culture that believes in therapy a lot more than in vengeance. Thus, I deem it unlikely we will subject the worst actors in the Islamic world to a therapeutic program of thermonuclear cautery no matter how richly it is deserved.

    That leaves number three: more or less leave them alone to do their worst to one another and – on occasion – to us or our friends. That seems to be what Mr. Obama actually wants. Just to demonstrate the bi-partisan credentials of this brand of do-nothingism, it also seems to be what Rand Paul and more than a few other Republicans want too. So, absent a major WMD incident with Islamist fingerprints on it happening within our borders, it looks likes option three is what shall be. I don’t think we’re going to like how it plays out.

  26. Paul451 says:

    Warren,
    “and there isn’t a Pakistan or Iran on the border”

    Indeed Syria has been the Pakistan/Iran of its region.

    Domino Theory Of Syria #1 : The dominoes fall face up : Removing the Assad regime and thus its support of resistance/terrorist groups in the region results in a dramatic calming of the situation in Lebanon and Palestine. With Lebanon/Palestine able to improve, relations actually improve with Israel, everything gets better. US draws down from the region. Iran loses its external “distraction”, pro-reform parties rise stronger than even.

    Domino Theory Of Syria #2 : The dominoes fall face down : Perpetual chaos in Syria results in more terrorists feeding into Lebanon and Palestine… and Jordan and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and…

    Domino Theory of Syria #3 : The dominoes explode and kill everyone : US action kills Russian “military advisors” in Syria. Russia responds.

  27. Andrew W says:

    Most of the citizens of any country invaded by another will be weary of the invaders motives, over time, and with the inevitable “collateral damage” this usually ends up with even those initially in favor of the foreign military intervention turning against the invader.

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