Stay out of the Syrian Maelstrom
"In Syria, I will work ... to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets."
This commitment by Mitt Romney in his VMI address has thrilled the neocons as much as it has unsettled the realists in his camp.
And the reasons for the latter's alarm are apparent.
Last year, U.S. planes scrambled to defend Benghazi against the "tanks, helicopters and fighter jets" of Col. Gadhafi. Now we are investigating the murders of our ambassador and three Americans in the city we saved.
To bring down helicopters and fighter jets would require U.S. F-16s over Syria or putting surface-to-air missiles in rebel hands. Do we really want to be passing Stingers around a no man's land where al-Qaida agents could buy up a few to bring down U.S. airliners?
What Romney proposes is an act of war. Before we get into our fourth war in 12 years, let us consider the antagonists.
This is first a religious war with the Shia regimes — Hezbollah, Iran and the Iraqis we brought to power — lined up behind Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Aligned against are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been sending arms to the rebels, and Turkey, which has allowed the transfer of arms.
Egypt has not gotten involved, but President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has demanded that Assad stand down.
Among the rebels fighting Assad, however, are Islamic jihadists from across the Middle East and al-Qaida. And should Assad fall, his successor would likely be a Sunni favorite of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Does the Brotherhood "share our values"?
If Damascus falls to the Brotherhood, the Christians Assad sheltered would face the fate of the Copts in Egypt and Christians in Iraq: terror, persecution, expulsion. The Alawites, the Shia minority whence Assad comes, would go to the wall.
There is also an ethnic component to this war. If the regime and state collapse, Syria's Kurds could emulate their cousins in Iraq and Turkey and unite to fight for a separate Kurdistan in the heart of the Middle East.
Then there are the strategic stakes. If Assad falls, the Shia crescent — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon — is severed. Vladimir Putin's navy, whose last base in the Mediterranean is Tartus on Syria's coast, would suffer a strategic defeat.
Thursday, the Turks forced down a Syrian airliner flying from Moscow to Damascus and removed what the Turks described as military equipment. An angry Moscow has protested.
And Israel? While nothing would please Israelis more than a strategic defeat for Tehran, Assad and his father kept the peace on the Golan for 40 years. And as the Sinai is turning into a no man's land with Hosni Mubarak gone and the Muslim Brotherhood in power, might not the same happen on the Golan when Assad falls?
And how have the Turks benefited from their involvement? By siding against Assad, they made a mortal enemy of a friend. Assad in retaliation loosened the reins on Syria's Kurds, whose kinsmen are 20 percent of Turkey's population. The Alawites in Turkey, ethnic Arabs, number another 15 million. The hard line taken by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming increasingly unpopular with his people.
How long would Americans support an administration that embroiled us in this maelstrom?
In the last week, shells from Syria have landed on Turkish soil. Is the Syrian army doing this deliberately? That makes no sense.
Are these mortar shells landing in Turkey a result of artillery duels between the Syrian army and rebels? Or are the rebels doing it deliberately to provoke Turkey into entering the war?
The Turkish line toward Syria is growing more belligerent. Are the Turks seeking a clash with the Syrian army so Ankara can invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty and force the United States to join Turkey in ousting Assad, if not on a march to Damascus?
In an Arab world that does not fondly recall an Ottoman Empire whose heartland Turkey was, that would not sit well.
The Syrian civil war could end suddenly with the fall of Assad. But it could also widen with Turkey and Hezbollah becoming directly involved, and Russia, Iran and Iraq sending military aid to prop up their ally. The whole region could go up in flames.
Yet what vital American interest is there in who rules in Damascus to justify yet another U.S. war in the Middle East?
While the Assads are despotic, George H.W. Bush made the father an ally in Desert Storm and Ehud Barak offered to return to Hafez Assad the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal.
If America has a vital interest in this multisided war, that interest is served by staying out, as we have done for its duration.
And how exactly have we suffered by not plunging in?