At a peacenik school like Colorado College, it’s hard to imagine that we could come to any sort of endorsement of violence, especially in another far-off Middle-Eastern country reminiscent of Iraq.
I voted for and donated money to Ron Paul in 2008 and generally think of myself as an isolationist with regard to American Foreign Policy. That said, I think there were some compelling reasons to strike key parts of Bashar Al-Assad’s military arsenal any time in the last year.
A year ago now, half as many people had died in the disgusting war of attrition that Syria has become, and the moderates that were involved in the nonviolent protests that started the war were still largely in charge of the Free Syrian Army. Since then, the Army’s once-reasonable demands have been co-opted by much more radical sectarian groups including Al-Qaeda, obviously the last group the U.S. should support.
In July of 2012, a month before Barrack Obama drew his “red line” with regard to chemical weapon-use by the Assad regime, the American government first began to collect intelligence that suggested that the Syrian Arab Army, under the direction of the regime, had used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
With rebel forces holding the momentum and less than half as many refugees from the crisis, brief tactical strikes could have served some purpose. Moreover, it would have sent a clear message that the U.S. was prepared to stand up for the ideals it espouses on a global scale, regardless of international support.
At this point, I think it’s impossible to make the case that an attack could really be “limited and tailored,” as the Senate’s force authorization resolution said.
The comparisons between this proposed strike, with its 60-90 day authorization of force, and America’s decision to attack Iraq in 2003 are easy to make and I think it is imperative that we as a country learn from our mistakes. We will not easily remove a despotic regime from power; no matter how reviled it is, no matter how out-of-date Arab Nationalism and the Ba’ath party in particular are.
Moreover, we should know by now that removing a minority leader (Assad represents the Shi’a population in a majority Sunni country, Hussein represented the Sunni population in a majority Shi’a country) can lead to serious negative retributive consequences when the majority population seizes control of the country, potentially creating an even greater humanitarian crisis than the war was in the first place.
As a country, we can’t escape the fact that any actions we take in Syria are to be received on an international scale, and obviously Obama’s decision to draw a red-line with regard to chemical weapons (an international norm that has been intermittently respected but always clear since before they were even first used at the Battle of Ypres in World War I) is intended as a message to other regimes that might threaten to use such unconventional means in battle.
Unfortunately, the international norm Obama stands for does not really have international backing, as was made abundantly clear at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, where no new countries signed onto Obama’s plan of action. Further, Syria never signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, giving the current government some legal grounding with regard to its behavior in suppressing what it has labeled an insurrection propped up by foreign powers.
If America were to be the face of the attack, it could potentially set back the revolutionaries’ credibility as speaking for the people of Syria. Since the beginning of the movement, Assad has cast Syrian protesters as foreign meddlers seeking to disrupt Syrian stability; American interference could very well provide credibility to that claim without doing any real damage to Assad’s ability to massacre the Syrian people.
For evidence of this anti-American sentiment, look at Ibrahim Qashoush’s revolutionary chant: “Get Out Bashar,” in which the chief accusation was that Assad was the “agent of the U.S.” Qashoush was killed in the summer of July; being associated with the forces of imperialism in the Middle East is no small accusation, and we would do well not to undercut the movement’s revolutionary credibility by allying ourselves with them.
The policymakers sounding the drumbeat of battle have yet to elucidate how we can avoid the “mission creep” that plagued the Iraq war, eventually drawing our troops into the role of peace-keepers and democracy-builders for the better part of eight years, when the engagement was pitched to voters as if it would be a brief attack that would fix the situation with nothing more than shock and awe.
A more regional concern is the fact that our belligerence in the area, even with the support of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, and a few other token nations, could lead to unintended consequences (like attacks on Israel or a retaliatory massacre by Assad) that would end up casting the U.S. as a negative force in the area. It’s easy to see how Assad and his allies would depict our desire for global domination as the real cause of the Syrian crisis in the first place.
If this shift occurred, we’d be shouldered with a public relations nightmare and little strategic effect as Assad’s well equipped, if war-weary, forces bounced right back from the attacks, or worse yet, cowered in civilian areas, making our 60-day strike just as destructive to the everyday Syrian as it would be to the Syrian Armed Forces.
Finally, on a global scale, it is important that we take ownership for the intended statement that an American Military action would make. The effect would be to put countries like Russia and Iran, who both back Syria (Russia because of its military base there, Iran because of Assad’s ideological association with them) on alert that the United States does not need U.N. approval to follow through on its threats. Unfortunately, it could also encourage Syria’s allies to push back harder by more substantially supporting the regime, creating military escalation in which the U.S. has no place.
Instead of taking military action in hope that it will scare the regime into sitting down at the table with the rebels, I think the only course of action is to pursue sanctions through the U.N. As clear as it is that Russia will block any U.N. Security Council resolutions to attack Assad, Vladimir Putin supports political resolution of the civil war. That fact, in combination with the abhorrence the average Iranian feels for chemical weapon use since the Iran-Iraq war means that both of Syria’s greatest allies would not like to see Bashar Al-Assad continue on the path that he’s so clearly on.
The international community has noticed both Assad’s use of chemical weapons while inspectors were in his country as well as his troops’ subsequent attacks on those inspectors’ convoy and torching of the neighborhoods where the attacks occurred. I think it should be left to the international community to stand up for their principles instead of relying on the global superpower to do all the heavy lifting.
There is no question that Bashar Al-Assad is a disgusting individual whose behavior represents some of the worst aspects of humanity. There is no question that Syria is in a humanitarian crisis; nearly ten percent of the country’s population before the war has fled abroad, and the conflict shows no signs of reaching a conclusion. There is no question that Bashar al-Assad will take the absence of international intervention as tacit consent.
Yet, until the international community agrees that Assad’s chemical weaponry needs to be disabled, unilateral aggression on the part of the United States is not the answer.
Such action will drag us into a military quagmire in which we have no place, cost us money we don’t have to fight on the side of rebels who have no true goals, and create consequences we can’t predict that will almost certainly be detrimental to American interests abroad.
As difficult as it will be, I think Barack Obama has no choice but to step back from his “red line” until there truly is some international consensus on what kind of strike would be appropriate, and more importantly, what Syria will look like in the aftermath of Bashar Al-Assad.
If protections cannot be assured for the Christian and Shi’a minorities of the country, a peaceful transition of power can not be assured, and the military’s substantial weaponry can not be controlled, Syria in the aftermath of international intervention will soon turn into a failed state. The current crisis will pale in comparison to the tragedy that will unfold should a state of twenty million in the heart of the most geopolitically sensitive part of the world collapses into anarchy with little hope that the atrocities will stop.
As horrific as the Syrian situation may be now, we as a country must exercise the humility to acknowledge we can only make it worse.
Instead, we should aggressively pursue a U.N. Security Council Resolution to safely remove and destroy the entire inventory of Bashar Al-Assad’s chemical weaponry under international supervision. I think it’s reasonable to expect that if the regime were to agree to it, the Free Syrian Army would embrace a cease-fire for the removal of the weapons.
Since the Russian Foreign Minister has come out in favor of such a resolution, it might be reasonable to back up such legislation with the authorization of force, a threat that Syria wouldn’t take lightly from its greatest ally.
Although the adoption of such a resolution would not solve the underlying problems in Syria, it would be a victory for international humanitarian standards in warfare, and if Assad were to refuse the resolution, his few allies would be alienated, creating an international consensus for strikes aimed at destroying Assad’s capabilities to deploy chemical munitions.