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A Student's Opinion on Syria

Roger McCormack ’14, Staff Writer 

Syria’s bloody civil war, a two-year conflict that shows no sign of abating, threatens to draw the U.S. into its maw.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people runs afoul of President Obama’s red line, in which he stated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would change his “calculus.” Obama’s initial reticence to enter the clash is waning, amid international aversion and a marked cynicism among the American public.

A proposed U.S. strike on Syrian targets would be largely symbolic and limited to enforcing international edicts prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. A senior State Department official claimed that it would do little to alter the balance of power in the war, and would not seek to facilitate regime change. As the war’s death toll exceeds 100,000 thus far, do the more than 1,400 killed by chemical weapons really require a strike that could cause more violence?

The proposed strike has no stated goals other than to enforce the norm against chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry said the “civilized world agreed that chemical weapons should never be used again,” but various regimes have used chemical weapons over the years without eliciting a U.S. response (Saddam Hussein had U.S. support and assistance when using them against Iran).

The question hinges on the context and whether military force has a transparent goal. Syria has very little regional clout, and if the question merely rests on a moral norm, it fails to note how bombing usually exacerbates foreign hotspots. Furthermore, the symbolic nature of the proposed military strikes creates the façade that the U.S. has the omniscience to know the consequences a military strike will have in Syria. Bombing could further fragment a region rapidly disintegrating, to no great U.S. benefit.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted the difficulties involved in limited action of any kind, saying, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next,” and “Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”

Likewise, Eliot Cohen of the School of Advanced International Studies said that “we would look weaker yet if we chose to act ineffectively” and retired Gen. Anthony Zinni put it even more bluntly: “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.”

Sen. John McCain, joined by a cadre of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives, seeks to degrade the Syrian government’s military capabilities, thus tipping the balance for an opposition that adheres to tenets inimical to American interests. Kerry has referred to the opposition as “moderate,” lending credence to the administration’s decision to supply the rebels with small arms through various Mideast allies. Facts on the ground disprove these claims. An American official familiar with the situation said last year: “The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it.”

The unsavory bent of the opposition is vividly conveyed in a video of a rebel commander bending over a member of Assad’s military, eating a piece of the soldier’s lung, offering this promise: “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog.”

Atrocities are far from aberrant, permeating those opposing Assad. Al-Nusra Front, a radical Sunni rebel group linked to Al-Qaeda, summarily executes Assad’s soldiers, rapes with impunity, and feels little compunction about slaughtering children. Syrian Christians are vulnerable to the depredations of Islamists, who have attacked based on supposed Christian loyalty to Assad’s regime and Islamist opinion to Christianity in general.

The United States hasn’t felt the need to address this, nor has it offered asylum to Coptic Christians in Egypt who have been massacred following the overthrow of President Morsi. The administration supported the coup, but the despoliation and barbarism it catalyzed have failed to change their equation. These atrocities are being recapitulated in Syria, with nary a response given to what being a member of a minority religion means in the Mideast.

The brutality extends to other marginalized groups in the region. Naze Alyama, a Syrian human rights activist, illustrates the ruthlessness of Islamic fundamentalism: “We have helped several (Kurdish) women to cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan who were victims, raped by jihadists of the al-Nusra Front, some of whom had witnessed their husbands shot dead in front of them before they were gang-raped by jihadist gunmen.”

Kerry did not speak about the grotesque rise of Islamofascism, and chose to focus on implausible claims: that the opposition “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.”

The administration’s most recent effort centers on forcing the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons for destruction under the broad aegis of the United Nations. Seizing on an offhand remark by Kerry about the possibility of turning Assad’s cache over to international control, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia has mediated a diplomatic solution to advert a military strike.

While it looks as if Obama has extricated himself from his reckless ultimatum, disposing of chemical weapons is notoriously difficult. Said Cheryl Rofer of Los Alamos National Laboratory, “None of what needs to be done can be done while people are shooting at each other.”

While a diplomatic solution would be vastly preferable to a military strike, the probability that Russia’s plan will fail is high. More perversely, the U.S. military would undoubtedly play a large role in neutralizing the chemical weapons. Thus, the diplomatic solution would likely require American boots on the ground in Syria, explicitly omitted from Obama’s original plan.

The administration’s ease at threating (and utilizing) military force is emblematic of the current iteration of U.S. foreign policy, best described by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s infamous “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

By contrast, foreign policy realism, often associated with George Kennan and, before his ignoble fall from grace, Colin Powell, seeks to use force only if a vital security interest of the United States is at risk.

Powell will be best remembered for his misstatements before the United Nations regarding the casus belli for Iraq, but an effort by U.S. policymakers to reclaim flinty realist principles would be an enormous improvement on the current foreign policy consensus. An attack on Syria would run the risk of embroiling the United States in a war for misguided humanitarian principles, which often produce unforeseen violence. The consequences of the Iraq War and the vacuum that was filled by Islamists in Libya after the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi are merely two examples of U. S. policy that originally had broad-support based on supposedly unassailable cases for intervention. Of course, any shift in policymaking would be arduous, given the ingrained consensus.

Interventionist thinking is today exhibited in the ridiculous tropes comparing failure to act against Assad as an analogue to British appeasement of Hitler, and the concerted effort to tar anyone who opposes interventionist as an “isolationist” merely shows the necessity of intimidation to reinforce a frail case for war.

Bully as they may, is it more likely that the United States will lose credibility for intervening and getting sucked into a bloody civil war over a foolish ultimatum by President Obama? Or if the United States deferred to international law and just said no?

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