Don't bomb Syria
Two weeks ago the Syrian chapter of the Arab Spring took a dramatic turn when reports of large-scale chemical warfare surfaced. Suddenly a civil war that was largely ignored for the prior two years emerged as a viral public debate, and as the clock ticks on all indicators suggest the U.S. will take on an interventionist role. For a number of reasons I believe that is a terrible, terrible mistake.
Supporters of U.S. military intervention maintain three core talking points. First and most effectively, is the sudden urge of “moral obligation” that has materialized in reaction to graphic details of chemical warfare. While the Obama administration shuns that validation, it takes nothing more than a Google search to find a video of a man begging his two dead children to get up and walk, or a child with facial wounds repeating to herself in disbelief “I’m alive, I’m alive.” Any empathetic soul reacts to such imagery with a red face and an iron fist.
The problem with applying this emotion to reality is the ignorance it reveals in respect to the past two years in Syria. More than 100,000 casualties are already attributed to the war, averaging out to more than 3,000 per month. If anyone claims a line of morality has been crossed, that point came a long time ago. Unless you are someone who has advocated humanitarian intervention all along, there is little credibility to justify that notion. I have a hard time buying the idea that mass murder can be swept under the carpet for two years, and then evolve into an urgent issue because of the nature of weaponry, be it artillery, airstrike or chemical.
The second false assertion claims that the U.S. has anything to gain from strategically launching missiles off the Syrian coast. A best-case scenario would deter Assad’s willingness to use chemical weapons (the Obama administration’s stated objective), but that is no guarantee, and would likely come at the cost of many civilian lives.
The Assad regime is no stranger to using human shields, and has a lot to gain from using every strike against them as anti-American bait. Moreover, the most effective clique of soldiers fighting for the Sunni opposition is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Even if all goes well and the missile strikes are effective, jihadists will remain the most equipped faction in a country with no unified authority to oppose them. Syria could very well turn into the next Yemen or Somalia, and that potentially becomes an even greater threat to American interests down the road.
Third is the notion that we are helping the average Syrian civilian by bombing the government. There is significant evidence that suggests intervention could not only fail to slow Assad down, but instead inflame his brutality. A recent study html looked at a series of conflicts from 1989 to 2005 and found that when outside governments intervene to back rebel forces, the government’s killing of civilians increases by 40 percent. Make no mistake; Bashar al-Assad knows that this war will determine the fate of his ideology, sect and family within his home country for generations to come. As a result he will become as desperate and lethal as he deems necessary, especially if he is backed into a corner.
For the average Syrian Alawi (the Shia branch of Islam associated with Assad’s government), the prospect of a vengeful Sunni majority taking the reins after a half century of blood-soaked persecution is a terrifying concept. Considering the ruthlessness of this war and decades of sectarian division, it seems wishful to believe that a majority of more than 70 percent will turn a new leaf Mandela-style just because the most recent conflict has blown over.
There are some tempting reasons to back intervention in Syria. Chemical weapons are a scary escalation of warfare, and their use does violate norms of international law and norms established at the Geneva Convention. The Obama administration will use this argument for intervention, but that won’t really be why it happens. Rather, it will be because of the “red line” President Barack Obama drew little more than a year ago, and due to the fact that the most powerful military force in the world has its credibility on the line.
Obama has backed himself into answering a question that he has tried desperately to avoid for the past five years: “Where multinational intervention fails, is it America’s job to police the world?”
The answer will be yes, but it should be no.
Dave Sweet is a junior is the School of Public Affairs and a Quick Take columnist for The Eagle.