Over the past few days, news reports suggest that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad may be gaining the upper hand in the Syrian civil war. While Hezbollah fighters are apparently pouring in from Lebanon to counter Al Qaeda extremists aligned with the rebels, a hard core Shiite militia backing Assad is having greater success than the regular Syrian army in regaining lost ground.
Nevertheless, key Republican leaders and their amen corner are calling for U.S. intervention to stop the slaughter and help topple the Assad regime. Buoyed by two recent Israeli air strikes within Syria, John McCain and the likes of Charles Krauthammer are calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone despite the strong warnings from Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey that "it would be a greater challenge, and would take longer and require more resources" than in Libya.
But the usual suspects so gung ho for Barack Obama to launch strikes against Syrian positions might recall what happened the last time a U.S. President casually did so. After all, back in 1983 Ronald Reagan learned the hard way what can happen when the U.S. imposes itself on a sectarian conflict in the region.
During its June 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel launched a devastating series of attacks on Syrian surface-to-air missile (SAM) positions in the Bekaa Valley. When the Syrian Air Force dispatched jets to protect the SAM sites, Israel downed 87 MIGs with no losses of its own.
But a year and a half later, American forces weren't so fortunate. On December 4th, 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered carrier-based bombers to attack anti-aircraft sites that had fired on reconnaissance planes protecting the U.S. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. The result, as the New York Times recalled in 1989, was a disaster:
The only time the United States sent its bombers over Lebanon, as President Bush was reportedly prepared to do again this week, the mission ended in a fiasco, with two planes shot down and one damaged, one pilot killed and one crewman captured, and little to show for the effort.In The Reagan Diaries, the Gipper explained below how he came to order the ill-fated raid:
The memory of that December 1983 raid, which came only six weeks after 241 American servicemen were killed in the bombing of their barracks in Beirut, remains vivid among senior officers in the Pentagon as they await the outcome of diplomatic efforts to end the current hostage crisis.
That evening received a call from McFarlane that the Syrians had launched an anti-aircraft & ground to air missile against our unarmed reconnaissance planes during one of their routine sweeps of Beirut. Permission was needed from me for a return strike against the guilty batteries. I'd already received a call on this from Cap in Paris. I gave the order. Sunday morning got a call--we had taken out a communications center, some batteries & an ammo dump. Two of our planes (24) had been shot down. One pilot parachuted and had been recovered. The other 2 is the 2nd plane parachuted in hostile zone--we've heard one was machine-gunned but we've also hard both are prisoners. We're trying to get a confirmation & will open negotiations for their return.That same night, Reagan wrote that he attended a Hanukah ceremony and went to reception honoring Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Elia Kazan, Katherine Dunham and Virgil Thompson at the JFK Center for the Performing Arts. "A posse of our Hollywood friends will be at the W.H. for the reception," President Reagan noted, adding later, "It turned out to be a wonderful evening & a great show.
Just not for the armed forces of the United States. (The next day, President Reagan complained, "Our press & TV are hostile to the point of being pro-Syrian.")
Ironically, one voice speaking out the entire debacle that lasted from August 24, 1982 until March 30, 1984 was freshman Arizona Congressman John McCain. In the fall of 1983 he voted against the War Powers resolution authorizing U.S forces to remain in Beirut for another 18 months. As CNN recalled following a 2008 presidential debate:
McCain said "I do not see any obtainable objectives in Lebanon" and that "the longer we stay there, the harder it will be to leave." On Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide attack at the Marine headquarters in Beirut killed 241 U.S. service members.(The impact of that defeat at the hands of Iranian and Syrian proxies in Lebanon doubtless had a major impact. It helps why when Americans were taken hostage in 1986, Reagan instead sent a cake, a Bible and U.S. weapons to Tehran.)
"In Lebanon, I stood up to President Reagan, my hero, and said, if we send Marines in there, how can we possibly beneficially affect this situation? And said we shouldn't. Unfortunately, almost 300 brave young Marines were killed." McCain said at the debate.
To be sure, the geopolitics and military realties on the ground now in Syria have changed dramatically since the Lebanon catastrophe 30 years ago. With its modern arsenal and proven ability to knock out sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, Chairman Dempsey explained two weeks ago that "the U.S. military has the capability to defeat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require more resources." But like former Bush and Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who on Sunday declared it would be a "mistake" to think America should - or even could - play a more muscular role in shaping the outcome in Syria), General Dempsey expressed caution:
"Whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire -- which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria -- that's the reason I've been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power. It's not clear to me that it would produce that outcome."Now as always, the neoconservative crowd is undeterred. Charles Krauthammer brushed off worries about U.S. casualties, proclaiming instead that "Israel's successful strikes around Damascus show that a Western no-fly zone would not require a massive Libyan-style campaign to take out all Syrian air defenses." As for John McCain, he didn't merely contradict the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Syria; he mocked him outright:
McCain, appearing on ABC's "This Week," accused the Joint Chiefs of Staff of looking for ways to avoid imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. He said Israel proved last week that airstrikes inside Syria can work against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.Iraq and Libya, where renewed civil war is on the verge of exploding in each, are two pretty good reasons for caution. But if you still need a third, look to Ronald Reagan's Lebanon fiasco and his lost jets of 1983.
"I'm sure they took out assets of Assad's in Syria, which is exactly what we could do with cruise missiles and with Patriot missiles," McCain said. "So that obviously blows a hole a mile wide in our Joint Chiefs of Staff, who prove again if you don't want to do something, they can find reasons not to do it."