Citing the complexity of the situation in Syria and problems in the United States, central Maine experts and laypeople alike on Wednesday questioned the wisdom of a possible military strike against Syria.

John Turner, who teaches Middle East history at Colby College, said it’s a bad idea for the United States to bomb Syria in reprisal for the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.

“There is not a military solution to the problem of the use of chemical weapons,” Turner said. “If our goal is to shore up the international norms against chemical weapons and against lawless behavior by regimes, then we undermine that long-term goal by behaving outside legal means.”

Weakening Bashar al-Assad’s regime could help radical Islamists or other groups in Syria that oppose the United States, Turner said.

“One of the unfortunate implications of a strike would be that if we compromise his command structure, he might lose control over the weapons themselves, and they slide out of his control, and who steps in to fill that gap is really frightening,” he said.

If the strikes destabilized the Assad government or even led to regime change, it could require the United States to send in troops, which President Obama and members of Congress have said they want to avoid. Otherwise, anti-American groups could fill the power vacuum, said Ken Rodman, a Colby government professor who focuses on foreign policy and international law.

“If you were going to use bombing strikes whose purpose is to remove the regime from power, that would mean the U.S. would have to be much more interventionist in supporting, quote-unquote, our guys,” Rodman said.

Some area residents think the United States should intervene.

“We’ve got to attack,” said Dan Chapman, who lives in West Gardiner. “What they’ve done to those little kids — and if we don’t stop it now, how much further will it go?”

Chapman’s lunch companion, Richmond resident Fred Wingate, said he doesn’t want the United States to put troops on the ground in Syria. Chapman, however, said he thinks it would be necessary to send in troops or peacekeepers after the bombings to secure weapons and stabilize the situation.

Judith Abbott, a financial advisor in Gardiner, said she would like other countries to step up so that the United States does not have to be the one to intervene.

“We’re in a position right now where we can’t let this go on,” she said. “However, I think it would be naive to think there would be no collateral damage.”

More area residents, however, said domestic problems should be the government’s priority.

“It’s good to help people, but if we can’t help ourselves, how can we help other people?” said Dylan Germon, 20, a carpenter and ski instructor from Waterville. “Why are we controlling other countries?

Why are we protecting them? We can’t even get things straight in our own country.”

Barbara Michaud, who is retired and lives in Benton, echoed some of those thoughts.

“I feel sorry for the children over there, but I feel sorry for children over here, too,” she said. “We should take care of our own country.”

Katie Richards, 33, of Carrabassett Valley, said that while the events in Syria are tragic, the United States isn’t in a position to intervene.

“I think there’s due process with things like these, but given the state of the economy — what’s going on over there is awful, but I don’t know how a war solves anything.”

Robert Bernheim, a history professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, said the violence against civilians in Syria is not genocide; but past genocides, such as the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide, show that there have been opportunities for intervention to protect civilians.

“I personally believe that the U.S. and the international community as a whole need to take a stand to say that these agreements against the use of chemical and biological weapons need to be enforced,” he said. “The question is, how do you enforce that? Are there ways that don’t involve military action?”
Bernheim said enforcement should come from the international community, not just the United States.
There are other cautionary tales in history.

Turner said Americans should keep in mind the lessons of Afghanistan’s fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the United States aided anti-Soviet fighters who later became the Taliban.

Rodman drew a parallel to the American bombing of Libya in 1986 after the bombing of a German nightclub that was sponsored by the Libyan government. American troops were injured and killed in the nightclub bombing.

Libya briefly seemed to reduce its support for terrorism, Rodman said, but in 1988 the regime was behind the bombing of a Pan Am plane that was much deadlier than the nightclub bombing.

Rodman said he’s ambivalent about a strike against Syria because the outcome is so uncertain.

“On balance, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. “On the other hand, given the way the U.S. has stuck its neck out on this issue, I think not following through on it could have serious costs.”

Rodman said other options might not be effective, either. If the United States penalizes companies that do business with Syria, the country still could get goods or weapons from Russia or China.

Russia and China also would have to agree to refer the case to the International Criminal Court, which also could negate whatever chance exists for negotiations.

Turner said the United States should consider working with Iran, which has a new president, to put pressure on Syria; but working with Iran is taboo in American politics.

Amid all the complexities and uncertainties, one thing that’s likely to result from any military action against Syria is higher oil prices, Turner said.

“We’re looking at a pretty big spike in oil prices that would arrive just in time for the depths of our winter heating season,” he said. “You might want to buy your oil now.”

Staff writer Jesse Scardina contributed to this report.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
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