NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

May 2, 2013

Our view: Tread carefully on Syrian problem

With an apparent affliction of short-term memory loss, some lawmakers are increasing the pressure toward the Obama administration to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad and his extended conflict with rebels in his country.

As if an eight-year entanglement in Iraq and a 12-year war in Afghanistan isn’t enough, we somehow feel the need to now immerse ourselves into the Syrian conflict with its no-win options.

The most recent pressure comes from “conflicting assessments” from U.S. intelligence agencies that Assad has used chemical weapons in the conflict and has crossed the “red line.”

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the time has come for a plan to show Assad “his barbaric actions will have consequences.” And what would those consequences be? Taking the side of the anti-Assad forces? Launching air strikes? Sending in troops?

To date, the U.S., European and Arab powers have assisted the loose alliance of rebels — many of whom have ties to Islamic fundamentalists — with non-lethal supplies including body armor and radios. However, President Obama has rejected the idea of sending arms to Syrian rebels, worrying those same arms would wind up being used by the Nusra Front and other Islamists against U.S.-friendly countries or U.S. targets themselves.

As recently as 2005, the CIA reported that 30 percent of the weapons meant for the Iraqi Security Force ended up in the hands of insurgents. The Government Accountability Office in 2011 reported the Defense Department is failing to properly track military equipment that was earmarked for Pakistan and warned that U.S. technology could end up in enemy hands. And earlier reports found that U.S. weapons in Panama, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia ended up in the hands of our adversaries.

While there are contingency plans for preventing stockpiles of chemical weapons to be used, it would require sending in U.S. troops, which is very risky and has a high degree of uncertainty in its success. Syria has a capable air defense system so any air campaign conducted by U.S. allies also would be lengthy and risky.

This is not to say the United States should stand idly by and not help protect its friendly neighbors. But we all should understand that the choices America has are bad and worse. There is no heroic, save-the-day option available. All that’s left is a concerted resolve of many countries to share in the risk. Or accept the reality that we would immerse ourselves in another foreign conflict.

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