The Worst Reason to Go to War in Syria

A rebel fighter gestures after launching a shoulder-fired missile toward Syrian troops in Aleppo, Syria Photograph by Narciso Contreras/AP Photo

Should America intervene in Syria’s civil war? A growing chorus in Congress thinks so, though not necessarily because of anything to do with Syria itself.

“More than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this,” says Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) asserts that “the credibility of the United States is on the line, not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the President backs up his words with action.” Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) dispenses with the nuance: “The world is watching.”

According to these hawks, if Bashar al-Assad is found to have crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons against his own people, Barack Obama has no choice but to take decisive action.

What the U.S. should do to punish Assad—launch airstrikes against suspected weapons sites? Arm the insurgents? Impose a no-fly zone? All of the above?—is less important than sending a message to others. Failing to act in Syria risks “squandering U.S. credibility … around the world,” according to McCain. The biggest danger to national security isn’t the prospect of getting involved in Syria’s war—it’s staying out of it. “If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria,” says Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), “we’re going to start a war with Iran.”

Let’s examine that proposition. The heart of the hawks’ argument is that the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea are somehow tied to what the U.S. does in Syria. There’s little evidence to support that case. Since 2001, U.S. military force has been used to topple regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. By the pro-war camp’s logic, such interventions should have deterred leaders in Tehran and Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear weapons. Instead, they kept marching forward. As Micah Zenko notes, Iran’s ruling mullahs have already defied the world’s “red lines” seven times. It’s not apparent they even gave it a second thought.

The assumption that Syria is a template for how to handle potential crises with Iran or North Korea is equally flawed. Despite the appalling death toll, the conflict in Syria is still an internal one that poses no vital threat to U.S. interests. A nuclear Iran, on the other hand, would alter the balance of power in the Middle East, endanger Israel’s existence, and potentially set off a destabilizing regional arms race. North Korean belligerence directly threatens the U.S.’s closest allies in Asia, not to mention the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Unlike Syria, where an intervention is opposed by more than 60 percent of Americans, there would be broad public and international support for a U.S. military response in the event of a major provocation by either Iran or North Korea. It’s hard to imagine the North Koreans and Iranians are unaware of that.

It’s possible that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are obsessively tracking the Obama Administration’s deliberations about Assad and calibrating their policies accordingly. But it’s just as likely that the course the U.S. takes in Syria won’t affect them at all. There’s simply no way to know. Experience suggests that the reasons countries seek nuclear weapons are deeply rooted: in nationalism, culture, and history. Once they embark on that road, no amount of saber-rattling or demonstrations of force are likely to persuade them to turn back.

Wading deeper into Syria’s civil war, in short, isn’t going to make America’s adversaries any more or less dangerous. There are certainly strong moral reasons to support more aggressive U.S. action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But sending a message to Iran and North Korea isn’t one of them.

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