The Syrian Civil War, a conflict that grew out of the Arab Spring movement that began in late 2010 and has been marked by a revolutionary wave of protest, riots and civil wars that have toppled dictators in some countries and incurred brutal repression in others, is coming to a head with the reported used of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on its own people.
First, some background on the situation:
- Syria has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. since 1979
- President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since 2000, succeeding his father, Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1971
- The country has been in a state of civil war due to uprisings against the Assad government since March 2011, considered to be part of the wider Arab Spring movement that has broken out in the Arab world
- As a result of these uprisings, the Assad government is losing control over large parts of Syria to rebel groups and is using increasingly violent tactics to maintain the power it has left, including the recent use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people
- Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011 as a result of this crackdown, and an opposition coalition was given Syria’s seat in the League
- The United Nations reports that over 70,000 people have already been killed in the Syrian civil war, and the death toll is climbing daily
- Approximately 1.4 million Syrian refugees have fled (or are trying to flee) to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq
- In February, the U.S. announced $60 million in nonlethal aid to assist with the growing humanitarian crisis
At a press conference earlier this week, President Obama said, “My policy from the beginning has been President Assad had lost credibility; that he attacked his own people, has killed his own people, unleashed a military against innocent civilians; and that the only way to bring stability and peace to Syria is going to be for Assad to step down and — and to move forward on a political transition.”
Obama also went down a laundry list of actions that the United States has taken to address the Syrian crisis thus far:
“We’ve organized the international community. We are the largest humanitarian donor. We have worked to strengthen the opposition. We have provided nonlethal assistance to the opposition. We have applied sanctions on Syria.”
Additionally, he referred to what’s happening in Syria as “a blemish on the international community generally,” and insisted that “we’ve got to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect the Syrian people.”
President Obama has stated on multiple occasions that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in this conflict would constitute a “red line” being crossed and a “game changer” that would incur further action from the United States. The president’s March 21 comment, “We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists,” appears to be the most applicable statement in the context of the president’s response at the press conference this week.
The administration, however, argued against taking further action in Syria until better information is available about the use of chemical weapons there, and it remained cautious this week. While stating that “we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons, you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible, and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don’t want that genie out of the bottle,” the president also cautioned against moving forward without concrete evidence and reminded the country of the detrimental effects of acting too quickly in this situation.
“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don’t have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened,” the president said. “And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts. That’s what the American people would expect. And if we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”
That last point is crucial, especially with regard to Syria’s neighbors. The United States should not go this alone. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been providing aid to the rebel forces within Syria, but the Arab League as a whole has been for the most part publicly quiet on the issue. The Arab League would be crucial to any effort to step up military involvement in the region, and it is a group with its own internal divisions – we could see one of its factions turn on us just as easily as they would help us.
Nonetheless, the administration now finds itself facing calls for direct military intervention. On Sunday, prior to the president’s press conference, several legislators publicly called for the United States to intervene in the Syrian Civil War, and they’re still not backing down. While none of the calls were for a “boots on the ground” strategy of deploying American troops to the country, the legislators insisted that more involvement than what the U.S. is currently engaged in was necessary.
On ABC’s This Week, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) said, “I think the options aren’t huge, but some action needs to be taken.” Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), took things a step further when he said on NBC’s Meet The Press, “They (Syria) need a no-fly zone, which could be obtained without using U.S.-manned aircraft. We could use patriot batteries and cruise missiles to take out their air (power) and to supply the resistance with weapons.”
On CBS’ Face The Nation, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) agreed – not surprisingly – with McCain when he stated, “One way you can stop the Syrian air force from flying is to bomb the Syrian airbases with cruise missiles. You don’t need to go deep into Syria to do that,” and “Let’s give the right weapons to the right people,” those people being the rebel forces in Syria. Sen Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia), appearing with Graham on Face The Nation, also pushed for more aggressive action in Syria, insisting that the situation in Syria “is an out-and-out war,” and agreeing with Graham that we need to “take affirmative action” by using F-22s and B-2s to take out Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, establish a no-fly zone, and enable Syria’s neighbors to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
But how do we determine who the “right people” are to arm in this conflict? Many of the rebel groups in Syria are known to have direct ties to Al Qaeda. In fact, Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups’ increasing domination of the opposition forces have left the administration with few good options regarding arming rebels. Do we really want to get into another situation where we arm a rebel group against a regime we are opposed to, only to have that group turn on us later with our own weapons? Haven’t we been through this before when we armed Afghan rebels against the then Soviet Union, and even when we have armed rebel groups in Iraq and Afghanistan more recently?
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel publicly acknowledged for the first time that the Obama administration is not ruling out arming the Syrian rebels. Speaking at a joint news conference with British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, Hagel told reporters, “Arming the rebels – that’s an option. You look at and rethink all options. It doesn’t mean you do or you will. These are options that must be considered with the international community: what is possible, what can help accomplish [our] objectives.” At this point, while information is still difficult to confirm, arming rebel forces would be a mistake. Fortunately, it is just an option that is being considered – for now.
Do we really want to drop bombs on Syrian air force bases – which will certainly bee seen as an act of war by Syria – on threadbare evidence? No-fly zones don’t maintain themselves, so how long are we prepared to keep this up? The United States simply cannot get militarily involved in a decade long war in the Middle East every time something disruptive happens in the region – and there will be quite a bit of disruption in the years to come as the Arab Spring continues to bubble up.
And make no mistake – neo-con war mongers like McCain and Graham would gladly use the opportunity of military involvement in Syria as an excuse to invade its ally, Iran, something they and other hawkish lawmakers have been making overtures about for years. Syria is also Iran’s ally and beachhead, the place from which an attack could be launched by Iran on any military forces that enter the country, prompting a counter-attack. The same administration that has been trying to extract itself from two armed conflicts in the Middle East now finds itself facing the possibility of another protracted conflict there.
Should the U.S. be doing more to control this deadly and destabilizing situation? No, not from a military standpoint right now. To start dropping bombs now would only serve to increase civilian bloodshed and very possibly anger neighboring countries in an unstable region. Our intelligence forces are already working with Syria’s neighbors and the United Nations to establish concrete evidence regarding the use of chemical weapons, and if the president’s criteria regarding chemical weapons are met, then the answer would be different. Evidence of chemical weapons, which are weapons of mass destruction, would raise the possibility of even more horrific civilian casualties as well as the chance that those weapons could fall into the wrong hands, endangering the U.S. and our allies. That would, indeed, be a game changer.
But should the U.S. stand idly by while tens of thousands of innocent Syrians die and over half of the country’s population is on the run from the Assad regime? No. We can and are providing humanitarian and nonlethal aid, and we are working on a diplomatic solution through our ties with Syria’s neighbors. We can increase the amount of humanitarian aid for refugees both inside Syria and those who have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. We can also increase our pressure on Russia, which has been providing aid to Assad, to help ensure a transfer of power from the Assad regime to the Syrian people. One way to do that would be for Russia to provide the Assad family, whose base of support is rapidly eroding, safe haven in its country.
And then we should step back and let the Syrian people govern Syria. The United States has a moral obligation to help people who are suffering – and huge numbers of people are clearly suffering while Assad remains in power – so complete isolationism is not the answer, and it is not the course the U.S is currently following. But it is not the job of the United States to nation-build in the Middle East, either, dropping bombs in an attempt to accomplish regime change. Instead, let us help the Syrian people with nonlethal aid and diplomatic solutions so that they may then help themselves.
Amy Lazenby is a wife, mother of three and small business owner with her husband who splits her time between South Carolina and Georgia. She writes with a liberal world view on most issues, but enjoys exploring where the liberal and libertarian political axes intersect. Follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz.