Let’s get the first issue about Syria out of the way. Yes, the Syrian government used chemical weapons and not the rebels. Yes, that attack was ordered by very senior figures in the military command – maybe not President Bashar, then certainly by his brother, Maher al Assad, the commander of the Republican Guard and the elite Fourth Armored Division, the core of the regime’s security forces. Take that as a given.
Yet the fact of a chemical attack hardly determines other countries’ stance to that horror. Every country has its own reasons for supporting or opposing a military strike in retaliation.
Russia has one good reason for supporting a strike. Oil prices are likely to rise rapidly, boosting Russia’s flagging economy. But it also has several other reasons for opposing any outside military intervention.
First, President Putin fears the possibility of finding himself in the same position as the Assads. Some 20 percent of Russia’s population is Muslim. A victory for the rebels in Syria would be a triumph for a resurgent al Qaeda. Their next target would be Russia. They would seek to infiltrate Russia’s already troubled Muslim republics.
Putin well remembers 2004 when Ingush and Chechen rebels took hostage a school in the town of Beslan. By the time Russian security forces had liberated the school, more than 380 people had been killed.
Moreover, Syria has always been a ward of Russia and its principle entry into the realm of Middle Eastern politics. Russia faces the loss of its key ally and one of its key bases for global importance.
China worries less about its Muslims, although its western province of Xinjiang has seen periodic disturbances by a liberation movement based across the border in Kyrgyzstan. More relevant to China’s opposition to any military intervention in Syria is its economy.
Before a meeting with President Putin in Moscow on September 5, the Chinese president’s spokesman said, “Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price – it will cause a hike in the oil price.” China is now the world’s major oil importer and already faces sagging economic growth.
What of the United States?
President Obama set his “red line” comment in an unscripted, apparently off the cuff remark that left him in a dilemma. Bombing Syria seems an extreme measure to take to ‘bail out’ the President.
Then there is the issue of being the world’s policeman – enforcing the good wherever it needs to be enforced. There may have been a rationale for that role post-World War II when the rest of the world was spent and destroyed. But with the “rise of the rest,” as it has been called, the rationale appears glaringly weak. It is especially weak considering the financial position of the US government in the 21st century.
Bombing Syria would also be the fifth military assault against a Muslim country since 1991. Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and Libya have all been on the receiving end of the extraordinary military capabilities of the U.S. Adding Syria would further inflame Muslim sentiment against the U.S. and generate yet more terrorism against our interests.
This is especially the case if such a military assault would weaken the regime of the Assads and enhance the power of the al Qaeda linked rebels in Syria. Through their ruthless tactics – see the recent video of their executing unarmed Syrian soldiers – they have demonstrated that their regime will be no more committed to human rights or democracy than the Assads. While the rebels would welcome an attack and their enhanced chances for taking power in Syria, their ultimate target is the U.S. and not Syria or other Arab states. No long term benefit there for the U.S.
There is the matter of appearing convincing to Iran. Will they fear a U.S. military attack against their nuclear program in the event they develop a bomb if the U.S. passes on attacking Syria? The anti-Iranian “let’s go for regime change” ‘mafia’ in Washington thinks they will not. But the reality is that the Iranians do not fear a U.S. attack, they fear the sanctions. Those ever tightening sanctions have helped to wreck the Iranian economy. The Iranians have turned moderate and seek an agreement with the U.S. in order to lift the sanctions. Not because they fear an attack.
Then there is the matter of our ally Israel. Their avid supporters argue for a U.S. military strike on the grounds that absent such intervention, Israel will be left alone to deal militarily with an Iranian bomb. That will embolden the Iranians. Any subsequent Israeli military campaign against Iran will not complete the job of destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and require American intervention to finish the job. Better not, they suggest, leave Israel in that position.
Any spike in oil prices would be a serious blow to the U.S. economy. While oil imports are down and domestic supplies are up, international prices still affect the price of U.S. crude. And even though the U.S. might release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (currently at 696 million barrels equal to 36 days of U.S. consumption), prices would still remain higher than current levels. No bonus for the domestic economy.
We know that Russia and China will not attack Syria. But there are good and sufficient reasons for the U.S. to hold back and reserve any action for future, more fitting occasions, if they were to arise. For the time being, U.S. national interests are neither on the line nor even threatened.
Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus at Booth School of Business, the University of Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.