Friday, May 3, 2013

No-fly zone in Syria should be a no-no

The odds of U.S. intervention in Syria accomplishing much other than increasing the death rate seem very low to me. Sure, destroying Syrian air fields in order to keep Syrian planes on the ground would reduce the rate at which Bashar al-Assad can kill civilians. That would be an unequivocal good.

But a Tomahawk missile costs $1.4 million. And, according to Sharon Weinberger of the Center for Public Integrity, quoting William Hartung, the no-fly zone in Iraq cost $1 billion a year to maintain. The one established in Libya cost more than $100 million in the first day of operations. In a time of sequester, in a time of cuts in childcare funding and unemployment benefits, every missile exploded in Syria also injures Americans.

Arguably, immediately reducing the rate at which Assad kills civilians would make no real long-term difference. After all, he has so many other options, like tanks, mortars and automatic weapons, for a more retail approach to killing civilians. Assad's regime will fall, but the sectarian violence that follows will make victims out of tens of thousands of other Syrians.

This is not a slam at Muslims or Arabs, either. Great power intervention and exploitation in the Middle East has structured the region geographically and politically in a way that ensures continuing power struggles and fratricidal violence.

The Iraq Body Count Project reports more than 100,000 documented civilian deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2012. Sanctions on Iraq during the period between the first Gulf War and the U.S. invasion of Iraq reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraq children. That figure has been disputed, but even, a libertarian operation, concedes that sanctions probably caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi children.

Tens of thousands of Afghani civilians have died since the U.S. launched a war against the Taliban in 2001. Hundreds of thousands of Afghani civilians died during the Soviet Union's invasion and ten-year war that ended there in 1989. During that period the U.S. gave billions of dollars in aid to various Afghani military governments and to insurgents, many of whom evolved to become the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

And, though U.S. forces have almost completely withdrawn from Iraq, IEDs are still exploding every day, maiming and killing Iraqis. The question must be asked: How, exactly, does U.S. intervention spare civilian lives in the before, during or after the event?

And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone have cost the U.S. somewhere between $4 and 6 trillion, a spending decision that has had adverse consequences in both the Middle East and in this country. A truly humanitarian intervention supported by the U.S. would rely on the UN and NGOs and be exclusively focused on aiding Syrian refugees wherever they might be and finding ways to get Syrian civilians out of harm's way. But the history of other U.S. interventions in the Middle East suggests that only Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Tomahawk missile, stands to benefit from establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.

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