The current buzz is over whether the United States should take Syria down next. On balance, that's a bad idea, for a variety of reasons, but the argument is close enough to make it worth looking at.
The charge sheet against the al-Assad regime in Syria is long. In the short term, it provided various forms of assistance to the outgoing Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Some military aid flowed. Islamic militants from other Arab countries, including Syria, crossed the Syria-Iraq border and some remain part of the continuing resistance to complete U.S. pacification of Iraq.
Syria is harboring former senior Iraqi regime officials and their family members. If Saddam Hussein is still alive, there is a reasonable chance that he is holed up somewhere in Syria. The 1966 Syria-Iraq split within the Baath Party, which left residual bitterness, meant that Saddam was not attracted by the possibility of a pre-war exile in Syria which might have headed off the war.
Now is a different situation and exile there might be his only option in an American-ruled Iraq, where everyone will be looking for him. Syria has been and is now a royal pain in the Middle East region. It maintains thousands of troops in Lebanon, “supervising” the Lebanese government and “overseeing” the drug trade and other criminal activities there.
It sponsors and protects Hezbollah, an Islamic terrorist organization active in Lebanon. Hezbollah used to hold American hostages in Lebanon. It is also considered to be responsible for shelling and other provocations of Israel that take place from Lebanese soil.
Internally, the current president, Bashar al-Assad, son of deceased president Hafez al-Assad, runs a mean and tight ship. Syria's human rights record is abominable; its economy is a shambles, and much of its money is spent on security forces which keep the al-Assad regime in power. Not a regime that anyone would miss.
The final piece of the attack-Syria-now argument is that U.S. troops are in the area. The argument would run that the United States should get rid of another horrible Middle Eastern regime while we are at it. The Pentagon undoubtedly has a Syria invasion plan on the shelf.
However, all of that said, Syria is a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. If there was screaming and yelling in international circles about the U.S. attack on Iraq, the din would be ear-splitting if the United States now took the war to Syria.
There is really nothing that Syria is doing - or hasn't done for years - that truly constitutes any kind of direct threat to the United States. Iraq was a stretch. Just being odious is not sufficient reason for the United States to get rid of Syria.
Regime change in Syria at this time, although likely to be welcomed secretly in the Middle East as much as Saddam's departure, would nail into place irrevocably an Arab and Muslim conviction that the United States is determined to turn that part of the world upside down.
And even though the al-Assad regime in Syria is and has been thoroughly secular, an assault on it would risk being seen also as further reinforcement of the argument in the world that the United States sees itself embarked on a Christian-versus-Muslim crusade in the Middle East.
Finally, and probably the determining factor against attacking Syria now, after more than a hundred deaths of our forces, and looking at a tab for the war and reconstruction of Iraq running into the hundreds of billions of dollars in tight economic times, Americans have probably had enough war for now.
Some of the troops have already started for home. The right approach to Syria for now is to take advantage of the thorough fright that the quick victory in Iraq must have given the Syrians, make stiff demands on them that reflect their current deer-in-the-headlights status, and watch closely how they respond.
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