Some wars are fought on strategic ground. Others are fought in places that have no strategic value, but the forces engaged there bestow importance upon it. And sometimes neither the ground nor the fight is important to any nation not directly engaged. This last is the view we should take on the fighting now taking place in Syria.
Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism, so labeled by the State Department in 1979 when it was ruled by Hafez al-Assad, father of its current leader, Bashar. That label remains, despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ill-considered characterization of the younger Assad as a "reformer." Shortly after that comment from Clinton, the younger Assad began a campaign of brutal repression against anti-regime demonstrators that soon evolved into street fighting and then outright civil war between the Syrian factions. The fighting is now in its 19th month.
Aside from its widespread connections to terrorism, Syria has no intrinsic strategic value. Its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon has kept that nation unstable and poses a significant threat to Israel. The terrorist group has more American blood on its hands than any other except al Qaeda. From the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon to the now-concluded Iraq campaign, Hezbollah has done its best, with Syrian and Iranian support, to kill Americans.
When the Syrian demonstrations evolved from protests to outright rebellion, news reports indicated that the Syrian rebels didn't want U.S. support. At the time, Obama rightly decided to not intervene. But other nations saw the fighting there from different perspectives.
Russia and China, always eager to support enemies of the West, are forestalling United Nations action against Syria. Saudi Arabia, threatened by both Syria and Iran, has been sending arms and funding to the Syrian opposition forces. Other nearby Arab nations are probably doing the same. Hezbollah fighters are heavily engaged in support of Assad's forces. Iran, eager to prop up its ally in terrorism (and against Israel), has sent arms, money and -- in a significant escalation -- Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops to Assad's aid. Turkey has exchanged artillery fire along the border with Syrian army forces and last Wednesday forced a Syrian airliner flying out of Russia to land in Turkey on suspicion it was carrying military cargo.
When the anti-regime demonstrations broke out, we did nothing. Unlike with Libya, in which we had no national security interest, America had a limited interest in Syria because of its long-standing support for terrorism. With Assad weakened, our interest in Syria shrank as the chance he would be removed increased.
About a year later, President Obama signed a secret intelligence finding authorizing covert aid to the Syrian opposition, which became public knowledge in August. Such findings usually authorize transfers of money and arms, along with CIA or special forces personnel to train or even operate with the friendly forces. Obama has reportedly staged some special forces in Jordan, which may be an act preparatory to military intervention.
The geopolitical order of battle is this: Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have lined up against Assad but don't feel sufficiently threatened to send troops. The United States is not openly committed but is providing covert aid to the rebels. In support of Assad are Hezbollah (a proxy force for Iran), Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops, Russian materiel and Chinese political support. What, then, should the U.S. do?
Mitt Romney, in his Oct. 8 foreign policy speech, hinted that he would consider greater involvement in the Syrian conflict. This would be a mistake.
The question of American involvement is determined by listing the possible outcomes in Syria. If Assad's regime survives, it would be little more than an Iranian client state. If it falls, what would replace it? As we've learned to our frustration in Iraq, Libya and Egypt, the fall of an Arab despot is not often followed by the accession of Jeffersonian democrats. Iran and Hezbollah will see to that. Syria isn't worth fighting Iran over. If do we have to fight Iran for other reasons, a fight against its proxies in Syria would be a mistake, a strategy that dooms us to another nation-building quagmire like the ones we have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In short, America has no vital national security interest in Syria. We should sit this one out.
Jed Babbin was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."